Dr. Yolanda Lawson on advancing Black health equity

Dr. Yolanda Lawson is the 124th president of the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing Black physicians and health professionals in the U.S. Dr. Lawson is also a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and the founder of MadeWell OBGYN in Dallas.

[Editor’s note: This is an extended transcription. Some errors may occur.]

Munson Steed: Hey, everybody! This is Munson Steed and we are on Health IQ, here, at rolling out. I have the phenomenal special opportunity of interviewing a change agent, a true lover of our community, a healer in our community, and a visionary in our community. You can decide to be over an association of cats and dogs, and pet lovers. You can decide that you want to actually grow a rose garden, or you can decide that you will take the job that is often thankless to people who don’t think about it, but need to.

And need to lean in to support this dear sister who has superpowers, that she is sharing each and every day to heal those women that come under her care, but also kill the health crisis that we are facing as a community in the professional ranks. I am proud to announce to you and introduce you to the phenomenal, the one and the only true healer, Dr. Yolanda Lawson. How are you?

Dr. Yolanda Lawson: I am well, thank you. Good morning.

MS: Good morning. If you would describe your mission, your title for our audience, just so that they can understand what your key mission is, and the organization that you represent.

YL: Absolutely, I am the 124th president of the National Medical Association. The National Medical Association was formed in 1895, when Black doctors had tried for years and years to gain acceptance into the American Medical Association, but due to exclusionary practices. As you know, we were not allowed, and so we were formed in Atlanta, Georgia, and we have been fighting for health equity since 1895. We represent around 50,000 physicians in this country, and the communities, and the patients that we serve as Black doctors and our mission, our No. 1 mission is to eliminate health care disparities.

MS: When you think about health equity, it sounds like a big term. People may not have an understanding of what that is. From a doctor’s perspective, what is that?

YL: Health equity is the ability for each and every individual, each and every person to have the opportunity to reach their optimal health, to reach their optimal health outcomes. And of course, you understand, we all don’t live the same distance from a grocery store. We all don’t have the same type of housing and resources, and so some folks need help. Some folks need help more so than others. 

And so, now we have all these fancy terms we use but I think about when I went to medical school, I knew for that person who lived, who didn’t have transportation. They left that visit. They may not be able to get back to me in 2 or 3 weeks. I had to give them more insulin. I had to make way for them to bridge those gaps and take into account their unique and individual situations, so as to support them in their health care journey.

MS: As president and over an organization with 50,000 doctors, what are some of your primary agendas that the Black community needs then to know, to get behind you and really understand your vision, for your organization?

YL: Absolutely. So broadly, our organization is divided into six geographic regions of the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have 26 medical specialties. So, I’m seeing everything from military medicine, plastic surgery, to pediatrics, to I’m an OB-GYN myself. So, through our specialties, and as you can understand, some of the issues that our Black pediatric doctors and patients may be concerned about. But as a whole, when you look at all of those specialties, we’re concerned about the health of Black America. 

So, my goal is that we achieve a healthy Black America. Personally, through my platform this year, I’m an OB-GYN at heart. I’ve told you I reside in Texas. So, the Black women’s health agenda, when you look at Black women, 60% of Black women over the age of 20 have some form of cardiovascular disease. That’s shocking. So, cardiovascular disease is something that I want to see us improve our outcomes. Because Black folks die disproportionately from heart disease more than any other ethnic group in this country. 

And then, secondly, I work on HIV disparities in women, maternal and reproductive health care disparities, digital health equity. I argue that we are told all of these digital companies are coming. They’re gonna make us so much better, make us get access to care. But I argue, will they really close the disparity gap? And so we have to make sure those guardrails and that lens is being enforced. 

And then, lastly, the healthcare workforce. There have been some things that have happened over this last year from policies that we are concerned will disrupt the work we’ve been doing for years, to really get to a population where there’s enough Black doctors in this country, that if a Black patient wants to have a Black doctor, they can have a Black physician.

MS: When you think about that, If you were giving a speech at a Spelman, or a Morehouse, or Howard, or FAMU, or any of the other HBCUs, or even Black Chicago States, what would your speech be about entering just the health care field and becoming a health professional? For those young brothers and sisters, who are at that moment, where they’re really trying to figure out “where and why should I join the workforce?” And what should I know that the need is from my community?

YL: Absolutely. What I would first say, I would like to share with them some numbers. I want to share with them information about the Black population. So rather, I just share with you cardiovascular disparities. Almost every disease states, Black folks are disproportionately impacted other than those with a genetic basis. We’re disproportionately impacted by almost every disease and chronic disorder for sure. 

The second thing is, I would want to be encouraging, because when you’re doing this work and you’re working on health disparities, and I see numbers daily, and I see preventable disease. So as a physician, we want to prevent these preventable and premature deaths. So, I would be encouraging to them. I think, and I know just by my mere being, by my mirror standing in front of graduates of an HBCU, that means something. Because I know from where I came and so encouraging that no matter the circumstance, I’m not saying everyone has to be a physician. 

We need Black nurses. We need Black pharmacists. We need Black physical therapists. We need Black dentists. So again, when you talk about the workforce, everyone’s interests may be different. We need more Blacks teaching in our medical schools. We have not been able to get past 2 to 3% of the Black academic workforce ever. And so, what does that mean when those students see Black instructors and professors and kind of what that resonates to them, and how that communicates. 

And so, I would be encouraging. I would want them to understand disparities. Everyone’s worked on this. We need everyone to work on these disparities issues from corporate America, who’s sitting in the CEO suites, in the hospitals, to the payers, to the academic institutions who’re teaching our students, and also who’s engaging actively in the frontline workforce, in health care.

MS: If you could become a guest at the table of the Black family and the Black home, and could actually prescribe to them before they start their meal, the considerations that you’d like them to think about, what would it be?

YL: So this happens in my own household. So, my mother comes to visit me, and I say this all the time. Before Beyoncé packed hot sauce in her bag, my mother was packing hot sauce, sugar and salt. So, she comes to my house and she always brings a little sugar, because she tells me my tea is not sweet enough. And so, if I had to sit with the Black family, as I do with my own family. I would talk about allowing and before this became the term, I used to talk to my own patients around, our food is really our medicine. 

I am able to give you less medication, if you are more diligent about the food and what you take in. I understand it is a challenge. The palate becomes used to sweet, salt, and spicy. I get all of that, but it takes one step at a time. It may be reducing or eliminating just one thing, whether it’s butter, whether it’s the extra cheese and cream, and so we have to think about, we have to eat for our health. We have to eat for the conditions that we have, knowing if we’re diabetic. 

But primarily, we have to reduce sugar, we have to reduce sugar. And so, if I could sit with the Black family, it would be around, how do we seek information around our nutrition, improve health literacy around our nutrition, and how do we eat for our health? When we see people eating themselves to death, eating foods that are aggravating their health conditions, and increasing their health care cost. And then, lastly, we have to mention alcohol in moderation.

MS: I love that. Now you’re had the meal and you are getting ready to talk about being active. How important is it for us to be an active community, we over index, obviously in television consumption. What would you say about just having lifestyle changes that relate to movement?

YL: Absolutely and so many times I hear my patients say. Dr. Lawson, I want to take something natural. I don’t want that medicine. I want to do it naturally. I inform all my diabetic patients. Walking is the most natural form to reduce our blood sugar. And so, whether it’s Thanksgiving, I’m always an advocate. After that big Thanksgiving or Sunday meal, go out as a family unit together. The one thing I recall that was so striking to me during the pandemic was that I would be leaving the hospital, and I drove by a couple parks to go home. I had never seen so many families, people with their children out walking. That was the one light that I saw in the midst of that pandemic.

I would be leaving work and seeing people actively, because it wasn’t really anything else to do, and they needed to get out of the house, but that was so encouraging and so enlightening for me to see people out being active and walking. What’s been discouraging is that people went back to their same ways afterward. And so activity, we can’t minimize what that means for our heart health, cancer reduction, blood sugar control, weight management. Because if you don’t manage [those things], you aggravate all of those other conditions … 

And so, it’s highly important that we recognize, we think about this with our children. G0 out with your children. I know everyone says they’re busy, but I don’t care if it’s dancing in the den. We have got to begin to move. All of America really has a challenge [with] that. But then, when you look at African American, even more so.

MS: This is kind of the last thing. HIV, you mentioned it. It is a reality. Why are we so muted about it? And what do Black women need to know about HIV, both young and old? 

YL: Yes. And so we now know that HIV disproportionately is impacting Black people and it’s impacting people Black people in the South. So now, here you look at over half of the new cases are in the South. We’ve identified the counties they’re coming from. We know that a disproportionate number of women, Black women, are getting HIV. And so, when you look at those rates, it’s important that they were intentional, so whether it’s the government. I’ve worked with the White House over this last year as soon as my term began on ending the HIV epidemic. 

What does that really look like for our communities, and one of the barriers I see is stigma. We still, as Black people, tend to think that this is a White gay man’s disease. And so, the first begins testing, knowing your status. We’ve got to do better. And even if you’re your own physician, when you look at Black men who have sex with men, one in two lifetime risks of getting HIV. Do you know what that means? One in two of those individuals? And so, we first got to test. We’ve got to be intentional. We’ve got to make sure that those resources are coming to those counties, to those states, and to the South to fund initiatives to remove this from our community. 

But we also as people — and this is really something, and I’m glad we’re talking today — because, this is something we may need to partner with the Black church on. And so, not everyone is in church, because I think about the younger population. But I do think that we have got to look at who are all of the partners to end this HIV epidemic, and we have to be intentional about the eradication in our communities.

MS: Well, I wanna thank you for your time. We could go on for another two to three hours talking about the States. I hope we’ll come back together at least quarterly to share information like you’ve shared today, to bring together a healing process for us, to reimagine our health as a Black community, reimagine our strength to change, reimagine our eating habits and reimagine how we share information and important information like health numbers, and your status. I’m Munson Steed and I have had the pleasure of being with my sister, the one the only, the Sister with Superpowers, the healer, Dr. Yolanda Lawson. Thank you so much for being on rolling out Health IQ.

YL: Thank you.

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