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Meet the Black doctors who want to transform healthcare: 'I empower my patients all the time'

Three highly accomplished Black women doctors share why representation in the medical field is important and how they're helping the next generation of Black healthcare workers.

Meet the Black doctors who want to transform healthcare: 'I empower my patients all the time'
Image Source: Getty Images/ GLG3 (representative)

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the United States, Black communities have been some of the worst affected. The public health crisis has revealed the systemic ways in which Black folks continue to be discriminated against. A pervasive lack of representation is one of the reasons why. According to a 2018 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, only five percent of all physicians in the country are Black or African American. In comparison, 56.2 percent of physicians are White. Furthermore, only 10.5 percent of students entering medical schools across the country in 2020 are Black or African American, and only 3.6 percent of medical school faculty are Black or African American. Given this context, Black pioneers in healthcare are trying to ensure greater representation in the field, transforming it to be more diverse and inclusive, Good Morning America reports.



"What happens when it's only five percent of physicians who are African American?" Asked Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, the surgeon-in-chief at North Carolina Children's Hospital in Chapel Hill. "That continues on as you go through so that when you get all the way up to the level of professor or professors in medical schools, there's only 1.8 percent of professors who are African American males and only 0.26 percent of professors that are African American females. So if you keep marching that out, the people making the decisions on who to hire, who are the chairs of the department, are also going to be few and far between African Americans. Latinos are about the same numbers as well." Dr. Hayes-Jordan is also a tenured professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine.




There is no doubt underlying systemic racism within the medical field, leading to mistrust, as Dr. Martha A Dawson, president of the National Black Nurses Association explained. She stated, "There is an environment that creates distrust and mistrust within our community. When you look at any health indicator, [we] African Americans always have the worst outcomes. At a systemic standpoint, healthcare has not been readily available to Black and brown individuals in this country, either because we don't have access to insurance, we don't have access to a lot of medical facilities and personnel within our community." At present, there is a greater understanding of these issues due to the pandemic, but we must ensure that this awareness does not die down as the country recovers from the public health crisis.




In order to ensure the representation of Black people in healthcare for decades to come, Dr. Hayes-Jordan helms the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, an organization that has worked to increase the number of Black and underrepresented minority surgeons in the United States by offering mentorship for current and aspiring surgeons since 1989. She shared, "It's a really gratifying organization to be a part of. We have such a problem with not having enough African American surgeons. There are many studies that show that Black patients prefer to have a Black surgeon. They're more likely to adhere to the recommendations of a surgeon if the surgeon looks like them. In this day and age, when we see so many disparities in surgical care, where if you're in a poor neighborhood or if you're in a rural neighborhood and you're Black and brown, you're less likely to get the best, most up-to-date surgical care. So the more surgeons we can train, the more we can improve the health of African Americans." The medical professional hopes for the number of Black medical school matriculants to reflect the country's population of Black Americans, which currently stands at 15 percent.




Project Diversify Medicine is another organization, although fairly newer, trying to reach the next generation of medical workers in a relatable way. Since 2015, Dr. Ashley Denmark has run the project on Instagram, where she has created a platform to show underrepresented doctors how to get into medical school. Her platform has also become a space for Black doctors to discuss their unique experiences. "I was in a predominately White program and I was the only Black intern at that program at the time," she said. "I didn't really have a space to discuss those feelings, a part of it was me trying to find a space to talk about these things." It was only when she launched Project Diversify Medicine that the doctor heard stories more similar to hers. She affirmed, "There's nothing we can't talk about. We want to be able to have these conversations, healthy conversations."



Dr. Denmark also uses her initiative to discuss health disparities in the Black community, particularly with regard to the ongoing pandemic and vaccinations. "The Black community has reason to be concerned," she stated. "But my job and my passion and my reason for being here on this earth [are] for me to help bridge that gap and really help show why we need to start engaging in our healthcare. I empower my patients all the time. You have rights in this healthcare field. If you don't understand something, speak up. If you don't feel comfortable about vaccinations, make the doctor talk about why you should get the vaccine. Tell them to explain the risks and benefits of it."



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