Why Ob-Gyn Katherine Brown Dreamed of Being a “Physician as a Form of Activism”

Courtesy of Chloe Jackman
Courtesy of Chloe Jackman

There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black — a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.

For ob-gyn Katherine Brown, MD, fighting injustice has always been at the heart of her work, which specifically centers on the care of Black women and birthing people.

At a young age, the 36-year-old doctor believed in the right to bodily autonomy, she tells POPSUGAR. But it wasn’t until college that she started to see how inequalities in health care were linked to systemic injustices. “The injustices that exist within society that affect the access you have to food, the air that you breathe, and the way violence exists within your community all directly affect your health,” she explains. “They affect the way that you’re seen and access medical care, too.”

Dr. Brown wears several hats within the reproductive-health space. At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), she’s the medical director of the Black Wellness Clinic, a specialty practice where Black patients see Black providers; an assistant professor in the department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences; and the assistant director for Health and Wellness at the Black Women’s Health & Livelihood Initiative.

As a result, her days vary. She provides clinical care across the lifespan, so in any given week, she could be providing abortion care, removing a uterus, delivering a baby, helping someone who’s experienced a pregnancy loss, or seeing Black-identifying patients seeking race-concordant ob-gyn care. She’s also an educator who collaborates with residents and fellows on research projects.

When she was an undergrad student at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Brown worked with a physician researching HIV among Black women, which was her “first window” into connecting health and justice. “At that point, I started to understand that you could be a physician and advocate in many different ways, both through research and clinical care,” she says.

That realization only became clearer as she navigated through the rest of her education and residencies. After college, she was committed to epidemiology research in China, focusing on the HIV epidemic and how it affected marginalized communities in the country. The experience inspired her to delve further into women’s health.

Attending medical school at Columbia University is when Dr. Brown became interested in primary care, and specifically the way physicians in the space were “awesome advocates for their patients” and “really involved in helping their patients’ lives outside of the clinical space.”

“That really drew me to it in the ways that you could have close relationships with people at these meaningful points in their lives,” she says. When she learned about obstetrics and gynecology, she was particularly drawn to supporting people around stigmatized aspects of health like sexuality, STIs, pregnancy, and abortion.

She eventually chose to complete her residency in ob-gyn at UCSF, where she’s been working for more than five years. “I felt like there was a big emphasis on service, on justice, and being a physician as a form of activism,” she says of the hospital.

“I went into medicine with a mind of justice orientation, so access to abortion is something I strongly believe in.”

Once Dr. Brown leaned into reproductive justice, she realized she couldn’t be a reproductive-health provider without focusing on abortion. “To be able to center the patients that I have and what they want, I would need to be able to offer that care,” she says. She adds that she’s even more activated by how abortion has been politicized: “It’s been taken out of the hands of patients and the people choosing to get abortions and put in the hands of people who have no right to choose what is best for other people’s bodies. I went into medicine with a mind of justice orientation, so access to abortion is something I strongly believe in, and I’m constantly angered and upset by the lengths that people go to restrict people’s autonomy.”

She did a family-planning fellowship at UCSF in which she focused largely on the reproductive-health experiences of Black women, including abortion access. “You can’t talk about abortion care without talking about what your experience is to be pregnant and get pregnant as a Black person in the United States,” she explains. “Those are all interconnected things.”

As Dr. Brown underscores, Black women have remained at a disadvantage when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights. The issue dates back to enslaved Black women being forced into pregnancies to help build America’s economy, and now, Black women are being disproportionately affected by the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“There’s all of this history that affects health, and then we also live within a racist society,” she says. “It’s also understanding the extreme disparities in Black maternal health compared to white maternal mortality and morbidity, so I think that makes reproduction so central to things.”

That’s why Dr. Brown is so passionate about improving the reproductive-health experiences of Black women, particularly through racially concordant care. Seeing patients at the Black Wellness Clinic, she understands Black women are often discriminated against in medical settings. She’s heard stories from her own family, friends, patients, and community about “horrible” doctors’ visits.

“I want to make that better,” she says. “You don’t have to be Black to make it better, but people seek race-concordant care because of their experiences and history, and because they weren’t feeling seen, heard, or like they were respected and had all of their options presented to them in a way that wasn’t dismissive or forceful. I’m motivated by that, and it informs the way that I try to provide care to all my patients.”

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