Elaine Welteroth Opens Up About Her Alarming Experience With ‘Medical Gaslighting’ [Exclusive]

The author and advocate recently joined forces with the Advil Pain Equity Project to fight against health inequity faced in Black and Brown communities.

Elaine Welteroth on The Advil Pain Equity Project
Photo courtesy of Advil Pain Equity Project | Design by BrownStyle Magazine

American journalist Elaine Welteroth gained firsthand insight into the flaws of the medical system while navigating her first pregnancy. “I had a hard time finding a doctor who made me feel safe and listened to me,” she tells BrownStyle Magazine exclusively. The media maven welcomed a beautiful baby boy in April 2022.

Since becoming a mom, Welteroth has used her loyal platform to fight for solutions to the Black maternal mortality crisis and bring more awareness to the health inequity Black and Brown communities face on the daily.

Although Welteroth is aware of the maternal mortality crisis, she admits that she believed in the myth that if you’re well-connected and educated, you can protect yourself. “Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case,” she explains. “It was just as hard as I had heard from everyone else to find quality care. That is why I ultimately decided to divest from the traditional medical system, choose midwives, and have a home birth that was safe, beautiful, and sacred.”

Recently, Welteroth has been lending her voice to the Advil Pain Equity Project. This long-term commitment to champion equitable and accessible pain relief was created by Advil and launched in partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine and BLKHLTH. The Advil Pain Equity Project’s first campaign, Believe My Pain, is focused on illuminating the issue of pain inequity in Black communities.

Below, read our editor’s full conversation with Elaine Welteroth about what motivated her to get involved with Believe My Pain, her personal experience with medical gaslighting, and how she suggests communicating with your doctors if you are experiencing pain. 

BrownStyle Magazine: What motivated you to get involved in addressing this issue through the ‘Believe My Pain’ campaign?

Elaine Welteroth: My intention in joining this initiative is to extend that feeling to every person who has experienced some measure of injustice within the medical system. You are not alone, and that speaks to the power of storytelling. 

A fact that was illuminating to me is that in a survey from Advil and the Morehouse School of Medicine, 1 in 5 patients felt that they were discriminated against when they were seeking pain treatment. In my world, there is even more than that; I don’t know a single person in my circle who hasn’t dealt with one measure of pain inequity or some sort of bias within the medical system. This is a real crisis, and I am so grateful to be a part of an initiative that is bringing language to this, that is bringing research, and is putting solutions in place to address the issue at the source. 

BSM: The survey revealed that 93% of Black individuals feel that pain impacts their day-to-day lives. How do you think this pain disparity affects the overall well-being of the Black community?

EW: In this country, People Of Color—particularly Black people—experience pain inequity when they are seeking diagnosis or treatment for their pain. Too often, it results in unacceptable outcomes, and people are dealing with pain beyond the point that they should because they’re not believed.

There are a lot of myths that have taken root in the healthcare system, which negatively impact the treatment Black patients experience. One example is that Black people have thicker skin and don’t experience pain the same way white people do, which is completely false. Yet, this rhetoric has been perpetuated even in the academic literature that is taught to medical students in recent years. When you peel back the layers around this issue, you see how systemic it is.

BSM: It is shocking that 3 out of 4 Black individuals believe there’s bias in how pain is diagnosed and treated. How does the ‘Believe My Pain’ campaign intend to address and combat these biases within the medical system?

EW: This initiative is going straight to the source and will be piloting a program to shift what medical students are being taught and address the bias by making them aware of the issues, working to reverse some of the negative messaging that they have received to that point, and making sure that these myths don’t continue being passed on to future generations of doctors. 

BSM: Storytelling seems to be a significant component of the campaign. How do you envision these stories will create awareness and drive change in the perception and treatment of pain within the Black community?

EW: Medical gaslighting is real, and so many of us have experienced it. It can make us second-guess our experiences of pain, inequity, and bias. Prior to becoming a mom and having my own negative experiences within this healthcare system, I knew there was an issue with pain inequity and bias, but once I got to see behind the veil, I recognized how deeply flawed the medical system is and how that creates major inequities that negatively impact Black people.

We know that personal storytelling is incredibly powerful. When those stories are rooted in reality, and you can paint a picture with facts and research to back up the powerful stories that people have been brave enough to share through this campaign, you have a compelling and incredible project that can really make a change. 

BSM: What role do you believe healthcare providers and institutions should play in ensuring fair and equitable pain management for everyone, regardless of their background?

EW: One of the causes of this issue is that doctors or physicians are not equipped with education about how to prevent bias from entering their practice. 

What is really important is that physicians are conscious of their biases and work actively to dismantle them. Illuminating this issue from the very beginning of their career and making sure that they are equipped with the tools to treat every single patient fairly is monumental.

BSM: As we look ahead, how do you hope the landscape of pain management and equity will evolve, both as a result of this campaign and more broadly?

EW: Addressing the issue at the source to make sure that the next generation of doctors is equipped to deliver compassionate care is going to have a greater impact in the long term. 

BSM: Given your role as a respected journalist and advocate, do you see this campaign as part of a larger movement toward addressing systemic health disparities and promoting social justice?

EW: As journalists, we know about storytelling, changing hearts and minds, and dismantling stigma. I believe it will have a significant impact on a micro level for anyone who sees themselves in these stories that resonate with me, and on a macro level in terms of addressing the issue in a systemic way. 

I hope this breaks the silence and encourages people to not be silent if they’re experiencing pain or inequity. I also think research is incredibly important. It turns these feelings and experiences into facts that you cannot deny. That’s incredibly powerful when you’re trying to change a system issue like this that has such deep historical roots.  

BSM: Are there any personal stories or experiences that have influenced your passion for advocating for pain equity and addressing bias in healthcare?

EW: The role that pain played in my pregnancy empowered me to advocate for myself and led me to have a birth at home with Black midwives to divest from the traditional medical system. 

First, I experienced a condition called pubic symphysis diastasis (PSD) early on in my pregnancy as I was easing out of my first trimester. I was experiencing this excruciating pain in my pelvis, and it made it really hard to walk or roll over in bed. I needed assistance with everything. It was very humbling and helped me understand the privilege that it is to move without chronic pain. It gave me this deeper empathy for people in my life and out in the world who are experiencing chronic pain in their lives. 

For me, it was inescapable for a period of time, and I struggled to find care that was truly compassionate and even to get a diagnosis that was accurate. Getting diagnosed accurately is important for feeling less alone. I feel grateful that I was properly diagnosed, given the tools, and had the resources to deal with that pain accordingly. 

After my pregnancy, at twelve weeks postpartum, I also experienced deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a life-threatening blood clot condition that a lot of women experience during and after childbirth, but it is not commonly talked about. I talked about it with my midwife, and she told me without hesitation to go to the ER immediately. I went, and I was immediately diagnosed. God knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t had access to a compassionate midwife. 

BSM: In your view, what would success look like for ‘The Advil Pain Equity Project’ and the ‘Believe My Pain’ campaign in the coming years?

EW: This campaign is going to hit home for a lot of people. It is important for our generation to be equipped with these tools and be able to navigate these painful situations on behalf of our parents and, one day, ourselves. I believe it is going to have a significant positive impact on our community. This is not one-and-done; this is a multiyear commitment, which is incredibly important.

To learn more about the Believe My Pain initiative, visit www.believemypain.com.

Editor’s Note: This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.