Indiana Play Explores Health Inequity For African American Women

Jun 24, 2019

African American women in Indiana face disparity in healthcare and health outcomes. They are more likely to die during or after childbirth than white women. They have higher rates of breast cancer deaths and diabetes. New research uses theater to shine a spotlight on some of the possible reasons why.

The play is called "One Blood." It weaves together the interviews of 10 African American women in central Indiana. Their words describe the ways they have encountered disparity in the health care system.

"I had a manager tell me right to my face ‘do not go take care of this patient, she does not like blacks,’" says one actress in the play.

Another line describes inequality in standard of care.

"The doctor thinks, well, maybe our education is less than theirs, or maybe you know, like, we're not intelligent enough to have a discussion on their level," says another actress.

The production at the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis is the brainchild of Sally Wasmuth, an assistant professor at Indiana University's Department of Occupational Therapy.

She says she wants the play to leave an impression.

"To make sure that this message is heard by healthcare professionals so that they can look at their own implicit biases, and how that might impact their care," says Wasmuth.

Wasmuth says she was spurred by recent reports of disparity in African American women’s health outcomes. She says the women she interviewed opened up.

"More than one of them said that the heart is impacted by the daily stress of being discriminated against," says Wasmuth. "And there are higher rates of cardiac disease and poor health outcomes for black women."

A scene from the play "One Blood" at the Phoenix Theater.
Credit Jill Sheridan/IPBS

Sherry Harris was one of the women interviewed for the piece.

She had gone to the doctor because she was having spasms. He didn’t know what was wrong and didn’t suggest testing. In the play an actress depicts Harris’s story.

"I'm not good enough for a test?" says the actress. "So he's like, 'well, I didn't think you'd want to have all that done.'"

Harris’s lives on northside of Indianapolis, she’s recruiter with an engineering degree from Purdue. She was taken aback when her doctor prescribed medicine without giving her a diagnosis.

"What's wrong with me? And you expect me to take this medicine, not gonna take it," says Harris.

Harris says after that experience she wrote him a letter – to tell him what he should have known.

"Science is something where you rule out certain things to figure out what's what. We've not done that here in this doctor's office today," says Harris.

The doctor responded and asked her back for a full examination.

The play includes numerous stories of how women had been mistreated by healthcare professionals.

With professionals and providers in the audience, the performance doubles as research.

The theater model was developed by Wasmuth, the IU professor. She says it fits the bill for what’s called narrative medicine.

"This practice of narrative medicine and close reading actually improves health outcomes," says Wasmuth. "It improves communication between providers, it reduces medical errors."

She says healthcare providers have reported better understanding of their patients.

"What we really need as healthcare professionals is more nuanced and detailed information about your particular story and how your disease or how your illness is impacting you in the context of your individual life," says Wasmuth.

Wasmuth has used theater as occupational therapy in past studies and she says her results show it can be therapeutic.

Interview participants from this play have expressed that it was. Some have also found it upsetting, including Sherry Harris. She attended the first showing.

"I thought it was going to be OK. But I think my stomach started hurting a little bit during the play," says Harris.

She decided not to attend the final performance. But sent a message that was shared with the audience after the show.

"It's important for those who are not African American to help us if they see something to step in," says Harris. "Because it appears as though we're invisible and we're disrespected."

Because as the last line of the play "One Blood" says: "We're all humans and we all bleed the same color blood."