When Kimberly Seals Allers was pregnant with her son, she was unmarried, finishing her master’s degree, and looking for the best care she could find for herself and her baby. She got recommendations from white women she knew who had delivered children and had good experiences. However, the facility she chose that was recommended to her didn’t give her the same type of top-notch treatment.
“I went there and left traumatized,” she told me over the phone. “Sometimes the tools that are out there aren’t really made for us.”
“For me at that time, I was not yet married and I was still a student,” she added. “I was an unwed Black woman with basic insurance, and that’s how I was treated.”
Her medical trauma helped Kimberly realize that who gives the reviews matters. A middle-class white woman’s experience may not match up to what women of color will face when searching for good maternal healthcare. According to a recent Listening to Mothers survey, 21 percent of Black mothers, as well as 19 percent of Latina moms felt they received poor treatment based on their race, ethnicity, cultural background or language.
With that in mind, she has been working on an app for the last two years, called Irth, as in “Birth” without the b for bias, to create change. What started as a small project has turned into something viable that could be a solution for a lot of the ordeals mothers of color have had while going through what is supposed to be one of the happiest times in their lives.
Irth, launching in October, will be a Yelp-like review system for hospitals and physicians. With half a million already in funding through grants, the app will filter reviews by the racial, ethnic background and sexual orientation of the women giving ratings. It will be the first of its kind though to screen for bias and racism in healthcare, and to help users to find providers they may feel more comfortable with in their socioeconomic and demographic bracket.
“We’re not saying you should go to a Black doctor,” she said. “The lens is on the reviewer, not the provider. You get to go in and say, I’m a Black woman, this is my income, this is my marital status, this is my sexual orientation, and you get to find reviews and ratings from people like you. Whether that provider is Black or white is not the point of our filtering process.”
Kimberly and her team are getting reviews from a few cities across the U.S. to help “feed” the app before it launches. Those places include New Orleans, Sacramento, New York City and Detroit. These cities were chosen because the rates of maternal mortality and trauma are pretty high, and they’re cities where conversations are happening about birth equity and maternal outcomes. The plan is to start there before opening it up to other cities.
Her ultimate goal for the app is to show mothers-to-be and present mothers of color the power they may not have realized they have to end bias and racism in care.
“Our goal is systemic change,” she said. “Yes the app is a place for you to share your experience, but it’s not just about a freeform rant.”
When you go through the app, you will have to state specifically what happened to you, whether it was dismissiveness, lack of diagnostic testing, etc. She wants hospitals to address the actual problems their patients encounter as opposed to just doing simple anti-bias training.
“That is going to allow us to finally begin to decode bias, “she said. “We’ll be able to say that this is the specific nature of what women are dealing with at your hospital and this is what we need you to address. We’re getting to move this conversation to a more detailed point so we can actually push for change within these systems.”
She said another goal is to help Black mothers-to-be, and their loved ones, feel less afraid when it comes to their care and delivery during a time where there are so many stories about women dying or having intense complications due to the errors or callousness of some medical professionals.
“Black women are becoming afraid. I see it everyday in my work,” she said. “Black men are reaching out saying they’re afraid for their wives, girlfriends, sisters, loved ones. It’s ridiculous that we’re in this fear model. I remind people that fear has been used to control Black people for centuries. So we don’t want to be in this fear phase.”
“This app ultimately tries to shift that narrative to say you have power. You have consumer power,” she added. “You can push for social change by saying, I’m going to tell my sister where to get good care and where not to go. So the other goal is that we move Black women from victims to actual change agents.”
There is a lot of excitement about the app, which is still in the production stages with a hopeful fall rollout. You can learn more about Irth through the project site Birth Without Bias, stay up to date on progress, and share your own story of medical trauma.
Kimberly is hopeful that women of color will be able to greatly benefit from Irth, but she believes that a major decrease in maternal mortality and trauma will require the help of all women.
“White women say to me, if a physician or a hospital is not treating Black or brown women properly, I don’t want to go there either. That’s what we want. We want IRTH to be a tool for all women to come in and collectively share their experiences using our consumer power in service of Black and brown women,” she said. “White women can be a tool to help remove this issue because Black maternal mortality is every woman’s problem and it’s not a Black woman’s problem to solve. It’s going to take all women to be the disruptive consumer force that we need for these institutions.”
Be sure to visit BirthWithoutBias.com.