Hannah Ming.
Hannah Ming was the first in her family to attend college. Now the VCU doctoral student is conducting research to better understand whether racism plays a role in poor outcomes during childbirth. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

A VCU doctoral student is looking at how racism might be affecting maternal health outcomes

A grant from Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest collegiate honor society, is helping to fund Hannah Ming’s research.

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Hannah Ming wants Black women to have a voice in maternity care. Through her research, she is trying to understand if racism plays a role in poor outcomes during childbirth. 

“I focus specifically on health disparities, and in that area, it is mainly maternal health disparities,” said Ming, a doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “For my dissertation I am focusing on whether racism and discrimination affect the beliefs and perceptions that women have about themselves and how that impacts their health outcomes.”

Research shows that Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth. Ming said some people within the health care industry have tried to argue that genetics play a role. That cannot be the case, Ming said, because immigrants from Africa do not have such a disparity of health outcomes in the United States, while African Americans do.

“If it’s about Black bodies, then women who came from Africa would be dying at the same rate,” Ming said.

A grant from Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest collegiate honor society, is helping to fund Ming’s research. Ming was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi while earning her master’s degree in public health at VCU. Staff within the School of Medicine encouraged her to apply for membership, and she was excited when she was accepted, as only the top 2% of students gain membership into the organization.

“It was such a big feeling when I got accepted,” Ming said. “It was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was a very gratifying moment to be able to participate in such a prestigious organization and to be recognized for my hard work.”

The $1,500 grant Ming applied for last year and received in March will fund the first phase of the research where she conducts interviews with women. She is advertising for participants on social media and will conduct the interviews through video conferencing. She likes the technological aspect of gathering information because it allows more people to participate in the process.

“I want to always use technology and media in my research approaches,” Ming said. “This whole project is completely virtual. I won’t be interacting with people in person at all. I think this removes a lot of barriers for people to participate in this type of research, because they might lack transportation.”

For Ming, the road to being a doctoral student and researcher has been long. She comes from a low-income background and is a first-generation college student (Ming graduated from James Madison University in 2016). She is proud of how far she has come and the work that she is doing to improve health outcomes among minority women.

From talking to women who have recently given birth, Ming believes health care professionals are often more concerned about the health of the baby than the well-being of the mother. Doctors and nurses may not take the time to talk with the mother and understand problems that might have occurred before and after the child’s birth.

Many women say their care providers never asked about their opinions or feelings about the childbirth experience, according to Ming.

“That was alarming to me, and that made me feel that I wanted to do something for the community,” she said. “I wanted women to realize that they were important, and that they deserve to be heard.”

Once Ming has gathered the information, she will analyze the data. She hopes to give the health care industry the ability to have a better understanding of why Black women have worse outcomes during childbirth and know whether racism plays a role in the type and quality of care that Black women receive.

“I also hope this dialogue helps providers and organizations and policymakers focus on the ways we can decrease discrimination and racism within systems and be more focused on the patient instead of just being focused on the outcomes for the babies,” Ming said.