Dr. Ericka Merriwether is an assistant professor in the NYU Steinhardt Department of Physical Therapy and Director of the Inclusive and Translational Research in Pain Laboratory (I-TRIP). We sat down with Dr. Merriwether to discuss part of her research that examines relationships between chronic pain and race- and weight-based discrimination.
As a health disparities researcher, how does your work tie into current conversations about systemic racism in America?
When we were in the teeth of COVID-19, data emerged showing that individuals who identify or are raced as Black/African-American and LatinX were becoming infected at higher rates. What also started coming out was that folks who met the World Health Organization criteria for obesity were being hospitalized at higher rates and that pain was a symptom.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) invited me to be a panelist in a webinar called Health Disparities as COVID-19 Spreads: What the PT Profession Can Do, and participating was really empowering. It was a panel of all Black women talking about things that mattered to me as a person and us as a collective. One of the other panelists was Dr. Lisa VanHoose of the University of Louisiana at Monroe – she’s the founder of a wellness institute for Black women called the Ujima Institute. Following the APTA panel, Dr. VanHoose and I spoke on Facebook Live about the work I’m doing related to pain and adult obesity, reframing how we discuss health and wellness in adults who identify as fat or full-figured.
These opportunities were unexpected and welcome in terms of elevating my work, but also, just being around other Black clinician-scientists, all of whom are physical therapists and allies, has been tremendous. That being said, our field still has work to do to elevate Black voices and promote anti-racism and anti-bias throughout the physical therapy profession at large. Querying racial discrimination usually centers whiteness, and American society is obsessed with thinness. We need to look at who’s at the table talking about racial health disparities and whose work in that space is being elevated. You have to elevate the work of Black scholars and scholars who identify as fat or full-figured in research spaces that address various forms of discrimination. Further and more importantly, the work from these scholars needs to be funded and published.