ICAN: Health Equity: Starting Uncomfortable Conversations Can Save Lives

Despite representing nearly half of the workforce, topics related to women’s health in the workplace remain shrouded, even sometimes considered controversial. Keynote speaker Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa and panelists from Methodist Hospital and Methodist Women’s Hospital will discuss health equity at The ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference.  

Speak Up

Health equity, in the simplest terms, is when everyone is encouraged and allowed to take care of their physical and mental health. 

Because an individual’s physical and mental health is directly correlated to how successful they can be in the workplace, it’s essential that employers recognize varying needs. 

Methodist and Methodist Women’s Hospital President and CEO Josie Abboud said it’s important to remember that men and women are inherently different and symptoms can manifest differently. 

While that may sound obvious, the differences aren’t always talked about, which means that women might not know what to look out for. For example, Abboud said that when men experience heart attack symptoms it commonly feels like intense chest pain. 

“For women, you could have just a really subtle jaw pain, or unusual neck pain,” Abboud said. “But if you’re someone that has no knowledge of that, you might discount the symptoms you’re feeling.”

Panelist Dr. HelenMari L. Merritt-Genore, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Methodist, will be giving participants signs to look for that indicate a cardiac problem. 

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Can I say that?

Equally important is advocating for other women and encouraging conversations about health, even when it might be uncomfortable. Women, Abboud said, tend to take care of others before they take care of themselves. 

“When I ask a group of women, ‘Do you schedule your kids’ appointments’ the answer is always yes,” she said. “But then when I ask, have you scheduled your well visit, they say ‘well, I need to do that.’”  

It’s important, then, to encourage women to take care of their health, whether it’s asking if they’ve gotten their mammogram or encouraging them to take a mental health day. 

Paula Pittman, vice president of human resources at Methodist, will be speaking about how employers, leaders, and co-workers can have those conversations.

Together We Can

Methodist will be highlighting mammograms. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for women in the U.S. and regular mammograms are the best way to detect cancer early. 

“There’s a lot of questions around should I get tested for the BRCA gene? What do you do if you have dense breasts,” Abboud said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40% of women have dense breasts, which makes finding cancer during a mammogram harder, resulting in a need for further screening that isn’t covered by most insurance providers.

Panelist Dr. Lisa M. Poole, a breast surgical oncologist, will be discussing a new federal bill called the Find it Early Act, which would require insurance companies to cover additional breast screenings. 

Abboud said the bill is an example of how we can advocate for women. 

“We have to be willing to be advocates and have bold conversations so that we can have access to the things that are necessary to keep us healthy,” she said. 

Shifting Norms

The increase in awareness around mental health may signal a shift in societal norms, indicating that topics that were once avoided may become more commonplace. 

“I’ve been at Methodist for 27 years and we’ve never talked about mental health to the degree that we talk about it today,” Abboud said.  

Part of that may be a result of the emphasis on mental health during COVID-19 when many were stretched thin. It is also in part due to advocates like Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa, who saw firsthand the disparities in her profession and in the Black community.

Among other important achievements, Oriwa is the only Black woman selected as valedictorian for the University of Toronto’s medical school as well as the only Black resident in her class of 259. 

 Oriuwa sits on the medical advisory board of Made of Millions, a global health organization working to combat the stigma of mental health care. 

Regarding mental health, Abboud said: “It’s a bold conversation that we have
to be willing to have. We have to be willing to listen, understand, and then
respond appropriately.”