BHM: Black Health and Wellness with Kwarteng Sarfo

Ayo was lucky enough to sit down with Kwarteng Sarfo for another of this years’ Black History Month Interviews, focusing this year on the topic of Black Health and Wellness.

Kwarteng brings his unique perspective as a senior officer within the NHS who is now working in Virtual Reality and Simulation in medical education with Oxford Medical Simulation.

Read more by clicking below…

BHM: Black Health and Wellness with Kwarteng Sarfo

This year, the theme for Black History Month 2022 focuses on the importance of Health and Wellness within the Black community. 

A survey commissioned to assess equity in the UK health care system for the Black community cited: “Specific to Black women, participants felt that due to the misguided stereotype of ‘strong Black women,’ practitioners were dismissive of their pain,”.  An important discussion on how stereotypes may affect the Black community in assessing adequate health and well-being services, that needs to be addressed and applied to the workplace and beyond.

So, once again we ask what can organisations do to support Black Health and Wellness initiatives?

Ayo Olubode, NKD, sat down with our esteemed guest, Dr Kwarteng Sarfo, a Ghanian born, senior house officer working for the NHS and now working in Virtual Reality and Simulation in medical education with Oxford Medical Simulation. 

Ayo Olubode: Hi Kwarteng. Thank you for coming to speak with us today about Health and Wellness within the Black community. Before we get into that topic a bit more, I’d love to hear more about who you are, what it is you do, and just a bit about your work.

Kwarteng Sarfo: My name is Kwarteng Sarfo. I am a Ghanaian. I was born in Ghana. I was raised in Ghana. I came here when I was nine. And then I was naughty, and I got sent back. So, I was one of those kids that whose parents, when they said they were going to send you back, definitely did send you back!

I came back a year or two later and I think I was a bit more tuned in to what I needed to do and ended up studying medicine at Imperial and graduated in 2020.

I’ve been working as a doctor for the past two to three years. I’ve been privy to different areas within the NHS, including hospitals and community care. And recently, I’ve just made a transition into med-tech.

We’re using virtual reality to teach medical education to doctors, nurses and so forth. So it’s an exciting space to be in now.

AO: Very interesting, that whole area of medical tech, used in decision making and improving practises. 

So, as I mentioned earlier, our theme at NKD for our Black History Month campaign is Black Health and Wellness. I’d love to kind of know more about any initiatives, charities or organizations that maybe you yourself are part of, or that you know of that are around this area.

Kwarteng Sarfo NKD Black History month contributor dressed smartly outside a restaurant

KS: The first one is Black Minds Matter UK. And why? Because it matters, I think it is very, very important for us to identify that, you know, the mind of a Black person is very important and given all the things that are going on recently as well.

And of course, I love education. And one great thing that Black Minds Matter UK does is that they break down complex and significant medical issues, such as psychosis, such as general anxiety disorder. And these documents that break it down, removing all medical jargon are allowing an individual to understand and truly educate themselves so that they can educate others as well. 

And one thing they also are very good at is that they have a myth buster section of their documents, which is good because I think the thing with medicine is that things that are juicy, things that are, you know, popular to spread are usually the things that are incorrect.

AO: Sounds like an amazing charity, you don’t hear many initiatives offering what you’ve described. Is there another charity you’d like to share?

KS: The second one is the Black Health Initiative. And they do what we call the Fusion Extra Cafe.

The purpose of that is to essentially deal with social isolation. We’re talking about our elderly, our grandmas and grandpas or uncles, aunties, who may not necessarily have their colleagues or their friends. The fact that Black Health Initiative is focusing on that, providing, even just a nice face to talk to other people who are like-minded, who are the same age, I think it’s very important. And it’s these small things that may seem trivial but ends up being quite impactful as well.

AO: Lovely. You touched on some important means to help our community kind of bridge that gap between the education that they need and providing that solution to give that education or to give that care that’s needed in these kinds of issues and problems. 

And I think I’d like to couple my next question with what you’ve mentioned here in terms of education. You mentioned earlier you were from Ghana, and like me, being from like an African background as well – you get this stigma and issue where Mental Health issues don’t exist. That it’s not a problem. I’d love to kind of get your thoughts on how do we dispel some of these ideologies that are preventing people from reaching out and asking for help?

KS: That question has so many facets to it, we could spend the whole day trying to break it down. I think, unfortunately, the lack of education is causing our own to perish. Especially back home. I think we’re doing better. But in the past, people make certain decisions on Mental Health based on tradition as well. 

Now I think you mentioned stigma, relating to Mental Health and culture as well. I think it is so important what we feed down to, the generations that come after us.

Before I even go into what the issue is, I think the key thing to remember is that the solution all stems down from you, as an individual. What are you doing? Are you adding to that conversation of, Mental Health doesn’t exist in the black community? Or are you taking away from that?

AO: What do you believe to be the main issue, and could you elaborate on what are some of those facets that contribute to it?

KS: You know, in a Black community, I think there’s always the idea or the association that Black means strong. There are certain areas where I would say, yes, Black means strong and there are certain areas where I would say, yes, Black means strong, but we are allowed to feel the way that we’re feeling.

We’ve come from, in terms of our past, our history with slavery and manual labour and the hardships our ancestors endured. And I think as a result of a combination of those experiences, there’s always been passed down from generation to generation that we must uphold this strength.

Now I think those days, yes, we do have institutional racism and we do have other forms of racism, but I think those days where we need to uphold such strength are gone. It is very difficult because it’s been so deep-rooted. 

I’ll give you an example. In Ghana, there is this saying I’m going to speak in Twi and translate after, so it says “Barima” which means man does not cry and it’s a very, very common statement that is actually part and parcel of the Ghanaian tradition.

AO: So you’d agree that sometimes our community’s cultures perpetuate this narrative?

KS: And I think it all boils down to you [the individual].

When we’re dealing with problems to do with Mental Health and the stigma associated with Mental Health, we need to always start at home, and not try and conquer the world without first changing the mindsets of the individuals that live under our roof. 

Educating your friends and family, saying that, you know what? No, it’s actually OK for them to speak out about what it is that they’re going through.

The thing is if that doesn’t happen, what happens is that we end up bottling a lot of these emotions and then when we do, when it does come out, it comes out as aggression.

Oh, this person is very aggressive to me. It may come across as anger in Black men and that’s what that all stems from, the lack of an open platform for individuals to speak on what they’re going through.

AO: I love that you touched on the fact that we have to start with ourselves and then those around us, to deal with these issues. So, thank you for speaking on that.

Moving from the cultural obstacles and stigma.

Are there any other obstacles when it comes to ethnic minorities, Black people, when it comes to our National Health Service? For example, a statistic showed for Black people and for people of ethnic minorities, it was significantly harder for them to get appointments. So, what kind of barriers do you see within our health system now and do you see it changing?

Medical doctor Kwarteng Sarfo with their face mask down, smiling and posing with two fingers up.

KS: I’ll start by saying that every individual has the right to health care is a basic human right.

It’s a multifactorial combination of social, environmental, and also the economic status of individuals that factors into why we may not be able to access health care. A very big factor in health, when you are trained to be a doctor, you’re made to know in the early stages that health itself, the concept of health is not just conditions and medication. It actually boils down to public health as well. Where you live, what food you eat…

AO: Could you give maybe an example of how these factors might perpetuate a lack of access to healthcare provision?

KS: So, have you come from a single Black parent background? Now due to reduced income, you have the Council helping you out and perhaps you relocate by the Council and as a result, you’re not in a particularly great area that doesn’t have a lot of funding and if that community doesn’t have a lot of funding, then the schools that you attend also don’t have a lot of funding and meaning that they don’t have the resources to help these students that attend these schools. So, you go to school, you obviously can’t concentrate because you have a lot on your mind, perhaps you know stress is at home.

You’re even thinking of, how you’re going to make that extra quid for, you know, mum and your siblings.

You end up not getting a good grade because you’re not paying attention and therefore you end up not getting a great job and you don’t have a great income, and even with that, income is divided by helping your siblings.

And so perhaps, you’re now hungry because you have little funds and therefore instead of going for the quinoa and the fat-free Beef, you go for chicken and chips or McDonald’s.

So, as you can see, that causes you to have obesity and high blood pressure diabetes as a result of the food are you eating. 

From that example you can see that it’s not just an isolated issue of you just eating McDonald’s or just eating chips, it boils down to many different areas within your life where perhaps the government has failed you, where perhaps even your current location or the school that you went to has an impact as well.

The NHS system. It’s a great system, but there are some places that let it down.

You call your GP for an appointment. You probably would have to wait two to three weeks to get an appointment. 

Another thing is also language barriers, where I’ve had consultations with individuals who speak a completely different language. So, an example, if an individual speaks Urdu, rather than the ten minutes that I have allocated to look after this patient, it’s going to require much more of me because I now need to get a translator and I need to get somebody to come and explain exactly what the patient is feeling.

If I can’t explain higher blood pressure to you and you misinterpret it as diabetes.

Rather than sending me to the cardiologist, you send me to the diabetic doctor. So again, these are all different factors that can also have a part to play.

So, I think there are various factors, and it doesn’t actually boil down to the medicine itself, but also to public health, issues within the government and issues within our society. 

Kwarteng Sarfo, NKD BHM 22 contributor, seated smiling with a stethoscope around their neck.

AO: Thank you so much for speaking on that. 

And one interesting point you made in there, just kind of touching on the language barriers or the need to have someone who understands that diverse range of patients that are coming in. Relating it back to the fact that you’re going into medical tech for example, how important do you think it is to have people like yourself go into medical tech for our community? How important do you think it is to have people like yourself to represent?

KS: I think it’s very important, and the reason is that in the health care industry, we need to reflect society, we can’t have a large proportion of a particular minority making up a large portion of our health care system. And the reason for that, is that certain solutions can be created to favour one minority or one particular ethnic group.

And it goes to show how important it is to have that diversity within the healthcare because there will be certain conversations that utilises somebody else’s experiences because everybody’s experience is different.  

And I think you guys have a design model, where you are identifying what the problem is and then brainstorming how to deal with the problem and creating that solution, then testing that solution. And it mimics exactly what we should be doing in society. It shouldn’t be just one group of people making decisions for a mass of people. Because by having the different experiences, you’re able to say that you know what? Yeah, that plaster? Yes, is good for an individual with a fair colour or anybody who’s Caucasian. But, you know, my Black colleagues who have a darker skin tone, probably wouldn’t be appropriate.

AO: Very true, the example you gave reminded me of a Black doctor looking in to implement the nuances of Black people into medicine, no? 

KS: Yeah, his name is Malone, and he recently was looking into improving the education of Black individuals in medicine. So of course, when we’re learning (especially anatomy), the picture is usually a white person who’s on there. So, as a result, when you come into the real world, you know that you’re not just going to be treating white people.

So, if you don’t have that experience or if you don’t have that interaction early on in your medical degree, it becomes even much more difficult because when you start actual medicine, you notice that, even the smaller process of taking blood is easier on somebody who’s non-Black, because obviously their veins are more obvious. You know exactly where you’re going, whereas a Black individuals, their veins aren’t going to be popping out.

It’s these small nuances that I think it’s very, very important to have a diverse group of people brainstorming a solution for a problem.

AO: Thank you very much. And just to kind of finish off on my last question and you kind of touched on it already, but just thinking about workplaces, maybe it’s a bit different for you, but what do you think workplaces can do so that process that you mentioned earlier to support Black people when it comes to Health and Wellness can be incorporated into initiatives.

KS: Firstly, you need to always do self-education. You cannot solve a problem that you don’t know of.

And so, it’s so important to, one, listen more than you speak, especially if you’re not an individual who is living the same experiences as another.

And I think, it’s very, very important to fully understand and educate yourself on what the problems and the issues that other individuals may be facing who are in a completely different ethnic group too.

And the second thing I would also say is that perhaps providing a space for individuals to actually speak about these issues that they are facing or even speak about, you know, health problems that they are going through, it may be a case of the initial conversation may need to be anonymous.

And then go on to something more public, but I think providing that space so that people can talk freely about the things that they’re worried about is perhaps the most important step.

AO: Thank you very much for speaking on our topic today about Black Health and Wellness. 

Connect and find out more about Kwarteng below:

If you’re affected by any of the topics discussed today, check out the organisations below for more information and support:

Black Minds Matter

Black Health Initiative

Check out our previous Black History Month interviews with Sharnade George and Harvey Kennedy-Pitts.