News  Global challenges to women’s healthcare access

Panelists emphasize relevance of socioeconomic disparities

Around forty students gathered on February 16 at a panel entitled “Women’s Access to Healthcare: Policies and Issues,” to discuss current problems inhibiting women’s access to care in Canada and around the world.

Hosted by the McGill chapters of the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC) and of the Student Association for Medical Aid (SAMA), three speakers – Zoua Vang, Amm Quamruzzaman, and Simona Bignami – were invited to shed light on the problems currently affecting women’s access to healthcare around the globe, and the effect of policies on these issues. The panel discussion included talks from each speaker followed by audience questions.

Zoua Vang, an assistant professor of sociology at McGill, primarily discussed the role of racial and ethnic determinants in infant and maternal health in the U.S. and Canada. In her talk, Vang stressed that socioeconomic status is a factor that majorly affects the study of access itself.

“You can’t treat all women as this monolithic group,” said Vang. In her talk, she examined the ways in which racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic differences related to premature birth rates, which can vary significantly across populations.

Vang demonstrated that among Asian women, there are discrepancies in the health results of women from different countries. While aggregate numbers show that white and Asian women have similar premature birth rates, there are many ethnic variations at play. By dissecting this larger categorization, “we can see for a lot of these Southeast Asian groups like Hmong, Cambodian, Filipino, Lao, and Thai, their rates of pre-term birth are almost twice that of non-Hispanic whites,” said Vang.

“You can’t treat all women as this monolithic group.”

Vang’s discussion also touched on the difficulties facing immigrant women in the U.S., where there is no universal healthcare.

Quamruzzaman, a PhD candidate in sociology at McGill, spoke about political agency and women’s access to healthcare, specifically addressing cases in the Global South.

“There are physical facilities, but access to those facilities [is] restricted, especially to women, those who are poor, and minority groups,” Quamruzzaman said.

Furthermore, Quamruzzaman identified corruption as a serious problem facing healthcare systems in nations in the Global South. “Many who go to public clinics have to pay a bribe,” he explained.

Quamruzzaman also noted how access to healthcare for women is influenced by systems of governance. “Women’s political participation is significantly linked with infant mortality rates. […] It is imperative to improve their quality of governance by improving their healthcare service prospects.”

Bignami, an associate professor of demography at Université de Montréal, spoke about the struggle of collecting medical data in certain countries.

Bignami pointed out that a great deal of the data presented by Vang is not available for Sub-Saharan African countries.

“For Sub-Saharan Africa, we are limited to [using] data from surveys,” Bignami noted. “Everything else that we know is biased insofar that people told us what they thought happened or what they thought we wanted to hear happened.”

Rebecca Kahn, a U2 Cognitive Science student, stated that she attended the panel because she is “interested in healthcare and its shortcomings in biomedicine, Westernized healthcare especially, and how this affects marginalized groups like women and racial minorities.”

“The people running healthcare systems are white men who don’t know what women and cultural minorities need,” she added.

Jessica Petrov, a graduate student in physiology, thought that “it was very informative – they seemed very well-versed on their topics.” She also added that she would have appreciated “more background information for people who don’t know much about the socioeconomic factors.”

Another Physiology student in attendance, Laurence Carrier, expressed the opinion that the panel discussion lacked cohesion, saying that “they were very fragmented, and I would have liked to see a theme.”

While some attendees thought that the panel was unstructured and lacked focus, and neglected certain issues like trans women’s access to healthcare, others still found it helpful.

“I thought they had some really interesting points that I hadn’t heard of before,” said Kahn.