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Has Medicine’s Racial Barrier Been Broken?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, Feb 21, 2020.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    Dr. Brittani James still recalls the first time she saw a doctor who looked like her. She was 21 years old.

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    “I remember seeing a black female doctor just walking down the street for the first time in my life,” she said. “It was such an ‘ah-hah’ moment. I can’t explain how shifting that was. It really opened my eyes.”

    With a profession that was slow to integrate minorities, James’ experience is commonplace for many black doctors in America. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the proportion of medical students who identified as African American or black only rose from 5.6 percent to 7.7 percent between 1980 and 2016.

    In honor of Black History Month, PhysicianSense asked black healthcare professionals to reflect on the struggles of being a minority in the field, any progress that they have seen over the years, and the integrative work that remains.

    Financial challenges

    Data from the 2017 Census put the median black household income at $39,490. White households, by comparison, stood at $65,041. According to the Population Reference Bureau, of the 10.6 million low-income families in the U.S., 58% are racial/ethnic minorities. This is despite the fact that they represent 40% of working families across the country.

    While pursuing a healthcare career is undeniably difficult for anyone, Dr. Kyra Gainous, a black doctor of pediatric occupational therapy, believes that society needs to account for the added financial difficulties of pursuing medical education and medical careers as a minority.

    “Where some of my peers may have been able to comfortably pursue their degrees and complete their programs with no worries, I had to work,” she said.

    Gainous had to simultaneously complete her unpaid clinical rotations for 40 hours a week while also working a paying job for another 40 hours.

    “This was a program where we weren’t supposed to work while in, but I didn’t have that luxury,” she said.

    Confronting unconscious bias

    The doctors interviewed for this post agreed that tackling racial issues is especially difficult because they are often a result of unconscious bias.

    “I had times when I walked into the room and patients thought I was hospital transport,” said Dr. Dale Odokukuru, the founder of Black Men in White Coats. “They didn’t realize I was the main doctor.”

    Odokukuru says this happened throughout his career, beginning in residency in 2013, and has continued to the present.

    Dr. Brandi Jackson, Dr. James’ twin sister, shared that black female doctors face a similar reality, often being mistaken for hospital janitorial staff — even when they’re wearing their white coats.

    “It adds to this idea that makes you feel like you don’t belong,” she said. “Many people in medicine say, ‘Well, I’m not racist,’ but we’re talking about something more visceral and subconscious. We are trying to bring things to conscious awareness so we can act on them in our policies. It’s more productive to talk about how unconscious bias can lead us to a path of inequality.”

    Changing expectations

    James and Jackson started the blog MedLikeMe to mentor other minorities who may think that a career in medicine, which historically has been dominated by white men, is unattainable because of the way they look.

    “There is often a lack of expectations for black kids,” Jackson said. “We had perfect grades in high school, and no one ever said ‘Hey, did you ever think about being a doctor?’”

    Although competitive grades and high test scores historically have been seen as signs of a future successful doctor, Odokukuru thinks that this perception needs to change for medicine to diversify.

    Instead of discouraging students who may not be naturals in school, Odokukuru encourages the industry to try a more holistic approach, as having interpersonal skills and empathy is crucial in being the best doctor for your patients.

    “We need to reevaluate the metrics we use to find medical school applicants,” he said. “Guidance and mentorship is always a big part. Getting into medical school seems to be more and more difficult with time, and if you don’t have the right guidance, you have fewer people being able to get accepted. Being a good doctor does not always mean having good grades and good test scores.”

    Finding mentors

    The doctors at MedLikeMe and Black Men in White Coats are devoted to debunking medical field stereotypes and acting as mentors for future doctors, which they believe are essential for diversifying the field.

    “Even people that look like me don’t expect me to be doing what I do,” said Odokukuru. “It is important for people to find a mentor that looks like them so they can find the resources they need to be successful.”

    James and Jackson agreed that as long as there continue to be online resources like MedLikeMe for minority students, change is inevitable.

    “As black doctors, we have so much pressure to make people that look like us have an easier time. But sometimes it’s the power of just existing and being visible,” said James. “There are certainly things about becoming a doctor that are hard for everyone, but there are some nuances that only minorities can relate to.”

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