Sharon D. Allison-Ottey on Health, Women, & Popular Education
You can call her Dr. Sharon.
That fusion of professional and personable is the most appropriate moniker for this M.D. whose made her life work in popular health education tailored to the lives of women.
Dr. Sharon’s resume is impressive: she’s the executive director of The COSHAR Foundation, a community health nonprofit. Via residencies and fellowships, she studied internal and geriatric medicine. She pocketed her medical degree from East Carolina University, after earning an undersgraduate degree with two majors and three minors. Today, she continues her policy work as an advocate for the elimination of health disparities fixed by race, gender, and socioeconomics.
Despite a background in research, Dr. Sharon draws her energy from frank conversations with women that leave the jargon behind. She travels the country as a motivational speaker on practical health and self-esteem. Her contagious charisma has built her a loyal following in Dr. Sharon’s online community.
Dr. Sharon is also a writer, which she sees as another popular education venue—she calls it “fiction with a purpose.” This year, she’s releasing a nonfiction book that focuses on healthy eating, as well as the sequel to her first novel.
After all, this is one Southern gal with a lot to say.
You’re a trained doctor who speaks about health and self-esteem, particularly focusing on women. How did you come to this path?
I’ve always loved talking to people, and I have a particular passion for women and our issues. While I was in residency training, I was asked to speak to groups about health, and this just continued through my training and fellowship. I became passionate about meeting people where they are, as it relates to talking about health and wellness.
My goal was to break through the medical mumbo jumbo and just talk to groups about health in a way in that they could understand, digest, and hopefully use to make life changes. This passion for speaking began in childhood with my father encouraging us to participate in oratorical contests. This really gave me the courage and comfort to stand before people and speak. I believe that nothing just happens, and that our life experiences are pieces of the puzzle that we hopefully are able to piece together in our lives.
How do women, health, and self-esteem intersect?
As women, we’re faced with what society says that we should be, how we should look, and what we should achieve in our lives.
When we talk about women’s health, it’s impossible to isolate physical health and wellness from mental health—which is closely tied to our self-esteem issues. Further, issues of sexual and psychological abuse weigh heavily on our physical risk factors. A woman that has a low self-esteem puts herself at increased risk for domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and other health problems. Many women that have been sexually abused turn to food for comfort and use weight gain as a shield. Further, we can look at the rates of anorexia and bulimia, and the direct link with body image and poor self-esteem. These conditions can be life threatening.
Tell me about the work you do advocating for the elimination of health disparities, particularly for older people and people of color.
I’ve long advocated for increased research in women’s health, minority health, and children’s health. I continue to work with private, public, and governmental agencies to increase the ‘volume’ around the need for all persons to be treated equally in the healthcare arena. I’m a fellowship-trained geriatrician and therefore have a special passion for the elderly who are all too often overlooked by society.
I believe that one voice is nice, but if you scream alone, you’ll be heard perhaps by a few—and unfortunately, over time, you’ll be weary and silenced. However, if you raise your voice in unison with others that share your passion, you create a loud chorus which demands attention and action. I use my voice, influence, mind, and passion to advocate for those that are less fortunate, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I’m optimistic and know that change will come if we are passionate and committed enough to be persistent.
In addition to speaking to groups, you have written books and maintain an active website. How do you adapt your message about health and self-esteem to these different audiences?
I’ve written articles that address cultural competency and health literacy. These areas demand that you adapt your message to reach the non-medical community, and that you recognize that we are all uniquely and wonderfully made.
The message of heart disease in women cannot be the same when addressing a professional African American women’s organization in Chicago, as it is to a group of Caucasian women who are completing a GED program in the rural south. One group is not superior to the other, and the message points will be the same as it relates to screening guidelines. However, the quotes, jokes, or stories used to engage the groups must be different—you embrace the differences and use the cultural nuances to your advantage.
People should demand a clear understanding of health and health recommendations without hesitancy, embarrassment or fear of humiliation.
How do you balance public advocacy with your person-to-person work?
I serve as Director of Health and Community Initiatives and Executive Director of The COSHAR Foundation. My work is at the grassroots level, though I partner with key organizations. This is the major thrust of my public advocacy. I’m blessed to be able to speak around the country to hopefully inspire others to better health, and to dream and aspire despite the challenges they might face. I feel no greater joy than to hear the positive impact that I have made in the lives of my readers, audience members, or subscribers to my newsletter/website.
Imagine that one woman’s voice or writing can change another woman—that is a blessing and cannot be taken lightly. It is an honor!
You recently spoke at a World AIDS day event. While AIDS was called a national crisis in the eighties and early nineties, these days it seems that the U.S. only talks about AIDS in Africa. Why do you think that shift happened?
As you know, I’ve been an advocate and researcher of HIV/AIDS since my residency training. I was fortunate to be one of the first investigators to address HIV/AIDS in the elderly. My passion for HIV/AIDS was born in medical school in the early nineties, as my heart went out to these patients that were dying before our very eyes.
The course of HIV/AIDS and the novelty has worn off in the United States. The sense of urgency has dampened as persons are living better and longer. I am so glad that we have made great strides in the treatment of HIV/AIDS; however we cannot lose sight of the fact that HIV/AIDS is still incurable. It’s still an issue in the U.S. and we must keep moving to increase awareness, treatment and advocacy.
There is still stigma attached, still a need for medical innovation, still a need for prevention and optimal treatment.
For women of color in particular, what is the impact of AIDS in the U.S.?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for black women was nearly 23 times the rate for white women. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for black men was eight times the rate for white men. While African Americans make up only 13% of the US population, the CDC estimates that they make up 50% of AIDS cases. It also estimates that 15% of the U.S. population living with HIV/AIDS are Hispanic.
The rate of HIV/AIDS in African American women is alarming, and there must be direct intervention that is culturally appropriate. I wrote All I Ever Did Was Love a Man; a novel about a woman that is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as a tool that now has been used by thousands across the country to learn, discuss, and internalize HIV/AIDS—not only in Black women, but women in general, and even men. This is not a book about HIV/AIDS; it’s a story about a woman’s journey in life that involves friendships and relationships, motherhood, low self-esteem, fear, the need for love, and HIV/AIDS.
I can’t tell you the thousands of emails, letters, and comments that I’ve received from women (and men) around the world. However, the most rewarding letters have been from women that have gotten tested, left abusive boyfriends/husbands, gone to school, gotten treatment for HIV/AIDS, which they’d stopped in an effort to die, and the families that have read the book together and openly discussed these issues.
You are a writer with an irregular schedule who does quite a bit of traveling. How do you keep your personal balance?
I really do try my best to live, laugh and love! I am passionate about my work and I don’t see it as a ‘chore’ but really an opportunity. I do schedule time alone. Writing has always been my therapy and allows me to mentally escape. I’m committed to my journey of better health and exercise daily (almost) which relieves stress. I have an extremely supportive husband and extended family and friends. My faith is essential in my mind/body/soul balancing and provides the foundation from which I launch. I am not perfect and often become exhausted, but just when I’m ready to curl up in a corner and ‘suck my thumb’— I am encouraged by a friend, reader, family member, person attending an event or at the grocery store.
Finally, I have the most important woman in my life: my mother, who often calls me and says ‘Where are you? Are you sleeping? Now, you need to rest— do I need to come to you?’ I always follow my mother’s advice or she’ll bop me.
Dr. Sharon D. Allison-Ottey’s Official Website
The COSHAR Foundation
Impacting the Health of the World, One Community at a Time
“HIV/AIDS Among Women” (Centers for Disease Control, Revised 2007)
Our Bodies, Ourselves
Inspiring a worldwide movement for women’s health
RH Reality Check
Information and analysis for reproductive health