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Native women report negative health care experiences

TEMPE, Ariz.

A trip to the hospital for a health concern should be answered, but for many women, especially Native women, it’s the opposite.

A survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation show that women are more likely to be dismissed by their healthcare provider and have a terrible experience overall, leading them not to ask questions or not see their provider for any health issues.

Native Health, located throughout the Phoenix Valley, and Changing Woman Initiative, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, both agree that Native Women are left behind in treatments and education about their health issues.

Dr. John Molina, the health services director at Native Health, said, “One of the things I’ve experienced is that our Native women, especially the more traditional ones, talking about their bodies and body functions is something they feel very uncomfortable with.”

Native Health is a healthcare facility for urban Natives in the Valley, and according to its website, it provides “patient-centered, medical, dental, behavioral health, WIC, and wellness programs.”

Humility

Molina said that often, in his experience, the providers would be male and non-Native, which would further the discomfort for Native women. However, if the provider was female and Native, there was more success in helping the patient.

Four in 10 women between 18 and 35 said they had had a negative experience with their healthcare providers, according to the 2022 KFF women’s health survey released in February 2023.

Molina states that the more a patient feels comfortable with their provider, the more successful the provider can diagnose and answering patient questions.

“For orientation every year, we try to enhance cultural competency values,” Molina said. “We would talk about belief systems and values among (Native) people, and a lot of it is based around the topic of humility. Some topics may be taboo. We encourage the providers to really get to know their patients.”

Across the board, when talking about their health concerns, women reported that they were dismissed, told they weren’t telling the truth, and discriminated against at a higher rate than men, according to the survey.

Native Women who are more traditional based and sometimes who don’t speak English as their first language see those barriers, preventing them from going to the doctors for help, said Molina.

“They may feel uncomfortable in a Western-based setting, especially going into the private practice areas where providers could be rushing. Our Native women are storytellers, so when they’re trying to explain what’s going on, non-Native providers could dismiss them,” Molina said.

Not being heard

However, health care services like Indian Health Service don’t run into the same problem, said Molina. Those services are often more understanding of their Native patients.

As a retired OB-GYN and having worked at Indian Health Services for many years, Molina said he knows many Native women are uncomfortable with “non-Indian” health care.

Another concern raised about women’s health overall is the lack of understanding about female health conditions like cancer and menopause.

One in three women, about 35% of women between ages 40 and 64, said their health care provider has talked about menopause with them or explained what to expect, according to the survey.

Molina said, “There’s a need for education. Not only on the need for screening but also where do they get the screening, who do they feel comfortable going to, I think that’s one of the biggest issues.”

Alongside Molina, Felicia Otto, the Changing Woman Initiative’s office manager, said in her time with the non-profit organization, she heard many Indigenous women’s stories who felt like they weren’t being listened to elsewhere and opted for Native women-run healing centers.

Changing Woman Initiative is an organization aiming to revitalize the understanding of cultural births and utilize traditional healing practices and medicines for reproductive wellness.

Otto said, “I got a call the other day from a mom who was very impressed with us. She came here to get her wellness check versus going out to other places where she had really bad experiences.”

Founder of Changing Woman Initiative, Nicolle Gonzalez, received her bachelor’s in nursing and a master’s in nurse-midwifery from the University of New Mexico where she also recognized the need for traditional holistic practices to keep the stages of motherhood sacred within the Indigenous communities.

The effort to provide the option for traditional births and healing throughout a woman’s pregnancy is on every staff member’s mind when welcoming women for their health appointments.

“The space is so homey, not like the stereotypical strict office clinic setup. It feels a little more inviting and puts a lot of our women at ease. On top of that, we want them to feel comfortable and at home, and it’s really in our best interest,” Otto said.

Changing Woman Initiative provides numerous services to better serve Native women, from sexually transmitted disease screening and treatments to plant medicine education and consultation.

“We want the women coming in here to feel safe. We have a beautiful array of staff who have worked with many different communities so that there’s a better understanding of the many different types of women who can walk in here and need help,” Otto said.

The survey suggests women are neglected more than men.

Native women are often made up of traditional teachings and values, and when put under the western medicine microscope, they’re left behind, said both Molina and Otto.

“We as Indigenous people believe in that medicine (traditional medicine and ceremonies), but the western medicine is more diagnosing and treating, and because of that, sometimes our Native Women aren’t valued as much,” Molina said


About The Author

Kianna Joe

Kianna Joe is Bit’ahnii and born for Kinyaa’áanii. She was born in Gallup. She received first place for best editorial in the student division for the 2022 National Media Awards. She is now an intern for the Navajo Times, covering matters in the Phoenix Valley while attending school at Arizona State University.

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