Where are all the Black doctors? They are hard to find. On average, about 5.7% of all the doctors in the US are Black according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Although enrollment of African Americans in medical school is on the rise, 5.7% is still low when considering that there are 66.1% of active physicians with a US Doctor of Medicine degree.
Looking back at the history of Blacks in medicine, it's easy to see why the numbers are so low. However, new data suggests that more black doctors are needed now than ever, and for some, it could mean the difference between life and death.
On average, when put in a crowd of a diverse population with no identifying connections, a person will gravitate toward those of their own race. It's a natural behavior because people are more at ease with who or what they know. Generally, being of the same race is an easy commonality to draw towards. This same kind of thinking works in medicine as well. According to studies, Black Americans who have black doctors have more trust in them, practice preventative care, and ultimately live longer lives.
"I think we as blacks relate more to people who look like us. Often, we have unspoken similar backgrounds that bring us to a common place of understanding when we have difficulties in our quests for higher education," said Dr. Creaque Charles, Pharm. D. at an accredited HBCU school of pharmacy.
How to Improve Representation of African Americans in Medicine?
The answer to that question lies in the problems that Blacks have with medicine. To understand the concerns, one must go way back in history to when enslaved men and women were forcibly brought over on ships to America. Those men and women were treated less than humans and stacked on top of each other like property. On that journey, they had to exist in deplorable conditions that were filled with human fecal matter, urine, and other forms of human waste. This resulted in them becoming gravely ill, and some died. None received medical care.
The feeling continued when slave owners subjected their Black female slaves to forced sterilization to stop reproduction. Women were also exploited for their bodies to produce more strong slave labor. These women did not also receive any medical care.
When the truth about an unethical experiment with Tuskegee men and Syphilis (dubbed the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis) came to light in 1972, prejudices grew.vDuring the era of the Civil War, Blacks were "doomed to extinction" by the medical community of the time, which thought the mental, moral, and physical deterioration of Blacks would send them to an early grave. The distrust of the medical community continues to this day as some doctors of other races may have prior biological beliefs about Blacks that can result in doctors thinking Blacks have a high tolerance for pain, so they may undertreat them for pain.
Incidents like the above led some Blacks to believe that they receive better treatment than their own because they know the point of view from which they are coming. They understand it.
"When people look at me and they can see themselves in me, that commonality serves as the foundation for a bond of trust," said Dr. Robbyn Traylor, chief medical officer of an urgent medical care clinic, who knows that any doctor can be excellent no matter their race. "There is a level of comfort that is understood and that can remain unspoken when brown and Black patients are treated by brown and Black doctors."
A CNN article dives further into the issue of why there is not a surge of Black doctors. Those reasons include factors like the race being excluded from medicine, systematic racism, institutional racism, not being exposed to STEM or STEM careers as a child, and a lack of Black doctors as mentors are among the top reasons. History supports this when looking at the first Black person to earn a medical degree. Dr. James McCune Smith had to go all the way to Scotland to receive his degree in 1837 from the University of Glasgow.
Dr. Traylor was fortunate as a child to be heavily exposed to the life of a Black doctor as both of her parents worked in the medical field. She was often at their heels as a child while they worked at one of the best trauma centers in the Texas Medical Center. "I was lucky enough to grow up in a community of people who made me believe that I had the intellect and attitude for medicine."
After Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington enacted bans on affirmative action, the diversity of the medical schools in those states dropped by a third. Before Black students were wholeheartedly welcomed at these schools in the 1800s and 1900s, they had a choice of seven medical schools, according to research by the Duke University Medical Center Library and Archives. Now only two remain: Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Black students are more likely to attend black medical schools to seek out those who look like them and have proven that their dreams are achievable. Future Black doctors want to attend schools where they don’t have to feel as if they don’t belong. They want to go to schools where they are encouraged to do well, and those who are instructors and mentors truly believe that THEY can do well.
Dr. Tameya Sam, who is a registered pharmacist and holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, knows that whether it is medical, pharmacy, dental, or nurse practitioner school, having a Black mentor matters. "The face of pharmacy is increasingly non-Black. I believe if there were more hands on and dedicated Black pharmacists who truly mentored Black pharmacy students, it would have a higher impact on their completion because they would serve as someone who has been there and genuinely wants to help them succeed."
Rosa Terrance, DNP, APRN, GNP-C, agrees with Dr. Sam. "Mentorship absolutely matters and is influential in producing more providers of color. At all times, I make sure of two things: 1) I have a mentor who looks like me, and 2) I am acting as a mentor to someone else. There is a degree of comfort and trust that is birthed out of just being present with someone of your likeness in an otherwise underrepresented space."
The Next Generation of Doctors
African Americans have a responsibility to expose our children to all the world can offer them. African Americans have a responsibility as a race to step up and be mentors for brown and black children in all fields, not just the medical field. To improve race relations, Blacks must educate our non-Black counterparts.
A change must come, and it must start now with each of us.