How These Doctors are Bridging the Racial Gap in Medicine in Pittsburgh

‘Ask a Black Doctor’ brings physicians and the community together to dispel misconceptions and build trust.
Johnson Rhonda May21

DR. RHONDA JOHNSON

When COVID-19 swept across the United States last year, there was generalized confusion surrounding how the virus was contracted, the effectiveness of safety guidelines, testing, and how long Americans would need to shelter in place. In Black communities, that confusion was multiplied by targeted conspiracy theories, a dearth of testing options and damaged relationships with the medical community that trace back to the nation’s origins.

Dr. Rhonda Johnson saw the writing on the wall. She is a retired physician executive and chair of the fundraising committee of Gateway Medical Society, a Pittsburgh-based coalition of Black healthcare providers dedicated to closing racial disparities in health care.

“When the pandemic hit in March, I had been doing a lot of personal outreach on my own through social media, primarily Facebook, because I had seen a lot of commentary that Black people couldn’t get coronavirus — that somehow we were immune because our skin made melanin,” she says. “I certainly knew that was not going to be the case. It’s an infectious disease that’s highly transmittable, so our living circumstances may predispose us to it. We’re more likely to live in multi-generational housing, we have a close-knit interaction style culturally and we’re more likely to ride public transportation.”

1hood Headshots Wbd By Emmai Alaquiva 74

JASIRI X

Around the same time, Jasiri X, cofounder of the grassroots activist organization 1Hood Media, was responding to the disproportionate impact shelter-in-place orders had on Black, low-income residents and essential workers. To double down on their efforts, 1Hood Media in April kicked off “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know About COVID-19,” a town-hall-style Facebook live event that encouraged the community to chime in with the questions they most needed answered at that moment.

“In that town hall we had doctors, but we also had community folks who were dealing with the effects COVID was having in our community. We talked a lot about testing and where to find tests because that was information folks did not have,” X says.

Once Johnson heard the show, she realized the combination of Gateway Medical Society’s expertise and 1Hood’s community outreach was an ideal way to bridge knowledge gaps for the region’s residents of color. She reached out to X and by May, they launched “Ask a Black Doctor About COVID-19” on Facebook Live.

What started as a bi-weekly emergency call to action has evolved into “Ask a Black Doctor,” a monthly program that addresses a range of health concerns for people of color in Pittsburgh and reaches an average of 10,000 viewers per episode. Even when the show’s focus was squarely on COVID-19, conversations usually opened up to broader topics.

“What was cool about it was we got different doctors from different practices and they were able to talk about their specific [fields],” X says. “When Chadwick Boseman passed away we talked specifically about colon cancer. It’s been an interesting transition.”

Villalobos Shantal May21

DR. SHANTAL VILLALOBOS

Dr. Shantal Villalobos, who is completing her residency at UPMC McKeesport through UPMC’s Family Residency Program, has participated since the first show and helped to spearhead a show focused on the Latinx community during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Villalobos says a lot of the work done since the first show has been to clarify facts versus myths about COVID-19 and to try to correct the years of mistrust between communities of color and healthcare providers.

“Because of the history in healthcare, we wanted to talk about those misconceptions about COVID because people don’t know who to trust when they talk about it. This health care system is based on oppression and discrimination of Black and brown folks. We have to talk about the real things that have happened,” she says, noting the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the unapproved use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells for medical research.

Toney May21

DR. RACHEL TONEY

Beyond history, conflicting statements in the outbreak’s early days served to further damage trust with the audience, says Dr. Rachel Toney, a gastroenterology specialist with Allegheny Health Network.

“Since the early part of last year there was no consistent voice trying to get information to the public that was trusted and verified,” she says.

As the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine accelerates and conversations about whether or not to take the shot abound, Toney says efforts such as “Ask a Black Doctor” will grow and collaborations to keep Black and brown citizens safe will grow in conjunction.

“There are so many collaborations now and I’m thankful we found each other and unified in a way that probably would not have been possible before the fact that we just had to do it,” she says.

Categories: From the Magazine, Medicine and Health Features