The theme for this year’s Black History Month is 'Saluting our Sisters' and presents an opportune moment to acknowledge the crucial part Black women have played in moulding the history of the NHS, driving change, and improving health inequalities within the UK healthcare system.
Black women have had a significant impact on the NHS, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. I quickly came to this realisation when searching on Google for influential Black female leaders within the NHS but struggled to find Black females listed on the search results page. This is despite the fact that Black women have continuously been at the forefront of healthcare provision and have played a foundational role in the NHS since the arrival of the first Caribbean nurses on the HMT Empire Windrush.
We must also pay tribute to heroines such as Mary Seacole, a pioneering nurse whose dedicated service during the Crimean War broke barriers and defied stereotypes. Such trailblazers have laid vital groundwork allowing for today's Black women to progress in the medical field.
Another leader in diversity within healthcare is Yvonne Coghill who initially trained as a nurse before moving into national management roles at the Department of Health and NHS England.
She is a former deputy president of the Royal College of Nursing and former workforce race equality standard programme director and was a member of the Health Foundation’s impact inquiry into the pandemic. Ms Coghill is a CBE and sits on the international board of directors for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. She oversaw the introduction of the annual Workforce Race Equality Standard reports, a common measure utilised by trusts across the UK to help improve race equality.
Professor Bola Owolabi is another key and influential figure in health inequality. She is the director of health inequalities at NHS England and Improvement and works as a GP in the Midlands. She has held numerous senior leadership positions on a local, system and national level including the national specialty adviser for older people and integrated person-centred care, led the anticipatory care work stream of the national ageing well programme and the local system lead for frailty and end-of-life care.
She is the medical director of Derbyshire Community Health Service Foundation Trust. Professor Owolabi has a longstanding interest in reducing health inequalities through more integrated care and service transformation. She has actively championed that health inequalities are everybody’s business, and that tackling them needs a quality improvement approach which identifies the effective interventions that result in true impact.
The stories of Yvonne Cohill CBE and Professor Bola Owolabi are just a glimpse into the extensive contributions Black women have made to the NHS. These Black female medical professionals have not only broken barriers but have also served as the driving force behind critical healthcare movements. They remind us of the profound effect representation can have on healthcare outcomes. When healthcare leadership reflects the diversity of the communities it serves, patient care becomes more responsive, culturally competent, equitable, and effective.
There have been remarkable achievements by Black women in healthcare. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Disparities in healthcare outcomes continue to persist, and the fact that Black women are underrepresented in leadership roles is still a challenge.
The UK health system, although widely known for its diverse workforce, still lacks inclusion. Black and minority ethnic doctors are an integral part of the medical workforce but often report having poorer experiences in medicine than their Caucasian counterparts. They feel less supported, are more likely to fail exams, and find it harder to progress in their careers.
As Black female medical professionals, we are often aware of the fact that we represent a double minority and will have experienced and/or are likely to continue to experience stereotypical challenges as a result of our race and gender throughout our careers.
This Black History Month and thereafter, it is therefore important we celebrate and elevate the voices and contributions of Black women with the hope of changing the narrative for future generations. We must actively support and mentor the next generation of Black female healthcare professionals, ensuring that their talents and expertise are recognised and valued.
In the words of Maya Angelou: 'We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter their colour.'
This Black History Month, let us create a healthcare system which truly celebrates the invaluable contributions of Black women to the NHS and the healthcare sector so that we can break the glass ceiling for generations to come.
Julie Hammond is a salaried GP in Dartford and an equality, diversity and inclusion advisory group member at the BMA