As we celebrate Black History Month, Melanin Medics have been lucky enough to interview several exceptional individuals who are doing amazing work to improve the health outcomes of the black community. This week we had the pleasure of talking to Dr Annabel Sowemimo, a junior doctor working hard to educate us all on the impact that different factors have on sexual and reproductive health in minority groups.
Please kindly introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Dr Annabel Sowemimo and I’m a Community Sexual and Reproductive Health registrar. I work between gynae and sexual health clinics which usually involve unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, endometriosis, termination of pregnancy and general gynaecological conditions. I also founded a collective – Decolonising Contraception, which aims to address the structural and historical determinants of sexual and reproductive health. Lastly, I’m a writer and I have a column for gal-dem called Decolonising Healthcare.
Tell me a bit more about your journey into medicine
Like most medics, I was introduced to medicine through family friends and my dad, who is a GP. When I was younger I had scoliosis and had to have back surgery at 14. Before the surgery, I wasn't really aware how much my life would change as a result as I now live with chronic pain. I'm glad I had the surgery but as a young person - nobody really explained the details to me as I think they thought I'd freak out. This made me realise that medical professionals are quite powerful people and how much we have a say, and how educated patients are can be very variable. Therefore we need to build more health literacy. I had this at the back of my mind when I went to medical school, but at the time I didn’t know much about the history of medicine and the different dynamics within medicine.
I studied anthropology in my third year of medical school and after learning about the colonial history of medicine, I felt like there was a lot of ignorance around medicine. So I decided to start Decolonising Contraception to address that in my own sector.
One reason why I decided to specialise in SRH is because I think it’s one of the specialities that is more open to change. I also felt like it aligned with a lot of my interests.
Why Medical Anthropology?
When I was applying to university I considered studying anthropology so I already had an idea of what it was. I’ve always had an interest in writing, I did English A-Level and have always enjoyed History and Drama. Intercalating in Medical Anthropology seemed like an opportunity to do something different and incorporate my love of writing into my medical career.
During medical school, was it important to you to maintain your creativity?
It was very important to me and luckily I was able to find creative outlets. I was on the drama committee and I directed plays at university until my third year. I was also the editor of the global health magazine and later, president of the society. One thing I found difficult about medical school is that I had so many other interests but our curriculum was so intense, but I managed to balance everything.
What inspired you to start your company?
It was partly out of frustration. When I went into my speciality I thought it would be different. I already knew the experiences of black women and reproductive health. It was weird to me because I felt as though no one was aware; I was faced with a lot of ignorance. Nobody seemed to connect the dots that it was the same demographic that didn’t go for their cervical smears, the same demographic that had poor health outcomes, had poor sexual health. I felt like everyone in my speciality sounded the same. I believed we needed new conversation.
I wasn’t even sure if DC would work, how it would be received or if it would resonate with people. Up until six or seven months ago people found it uncomfortable to discuss decolonisation and it is only recently that the atmosphere around this has changed considerably.
Why do you think things have things changed?
Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter have meant that some people have had to do some internal reflection because there is no medical reason why people of different descent should be dying from Covid in such disproportionate numbers. People are being forced to reckon with the social determinants of health. But we already know that if you improve someone’s life circumstances, their health will inevitably get better.
What has been the most rewarding part of this project so far?
One thing I enjoy is connecting and engaging with medical students and younger doctors. I remember feeling really lonely in medical school, as no one else understood the problems I had with our syllabus. They didn’t understand how I felt towards medical school. Back then I didn’t really know what the problems were or how to articulate those feelings until now. I really find it rewarding when I see medical students who have been inspired by our work, going to start something at their university and challenging the status quo. For me this shows that my work is working.
So what does a typical week look like for you?
My days are quite varied as a CSRH trainee. It’s a combination of gynae clinics and sexual health clinics so this can range from a menopause and general gynae clinic to a termination of pregnancy and GUM clinic. I also have time to work on projects such as Quality Improvement Projects. Decolonising Contraception is a full time job in itself so I check my emails in the morning before work and at several other points during the day. I go to the gym a few times a week in the evening and from around 7 pm to 11 pm I do work for DC. On the weekends I’m usually writing an article or doing more DC work.
How are you able to balance this with your work commitments?
I don’t really have full days off; I usually have time off. For example, I might do work in the morning and give myself the rest of the day off. I’m lucky to have very understanding friends and family around me. I’m also getting better at delegating so we have different roles at DC, and I try to touch base with the different team members every few weeks.
If you love something, you find time for it. I was coming to the end of my tether because things at Decolonising Contraception were becoming quite hard. But the love of something will push you to a point where you find reserves you didn’t know you had. You also need to remember that medicine is a marathon not a sprint. You don’t need to be busy all the time.
Where do you see your company in the next 10 years?
I hope that we are still around to advocate. I hope that more organisations are building the narrative that we discuss so we aren’t as necessary anymore. It’s a beautiful thing if your organisation ceases to exist, because it means the problem you set out to solve is cured. I would like Decolonising Contraception to have changed the conversation and I’d like to see this reflected in improving statistics in the UK. I’d like people to use some of our strategies and improve SRH globally.
What developments in medicine would you like to see in the next 10 years?
I hope that medical curriculums start to tell the truth and tell the actual history of medicine. We need to talk more about doctors themselves and their own prejudices and biases.
If you have any advice for our current medical students and aspiring medics, what would it be?
Don’t doubt your own capabilities. It’s very easy to get bogged down by self doubt at medical school because someone is always smarter than you or doing more than you. You are enough and you are good enough. Whatever happens at medical school does not define how you’ll be as a doctor.
What is the best way to support or get involved with DC?
We have projects that run throughout the year that we sometimes need volunteers for, so feel free to email if you’d like to get involved. We are also always looking for illustrators to work with. Sign up to our mailing list on our website. You can donate to us through our patreon and paypal. Check out our social media. We are always looking for youth organisations and universities to visit, so get in touch if you’d like us to speak.
With thanks to Dr Annabel Sowemimo for taking the time to chat to us, keep doing the amazing work you're doing!