After decades of widespread initiatives to boost the number of African-American doctors, Blacks still remain an underrepresented minority in the nation’s medical schools, according to USA Today.
That was illustrated by Gabriel Felix, a 27-year-old Rockland County, N.Y., native who is graduating from Howard University’s medical school in May, but still knows how many challenges he has in front of him.
Felix told USA Today he and other emerging black doctors and medical school students are in a constant battle to be recognized for who they are, instead of mistaken for hospital support staff; assuage doctors’ doubts about their abilities; or to even be called by their names instead of giving in to requests to choose a nickname because their names are too difficult to pronounce.
“We’re still on a steady hill toward progress,” Felix, who is president of the Student National Medical Association, which represents medical students of color, told USA Today. But “there’s still a lot more work to do.”
USA Today did an examination of medical school enrollment after news of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s racially controversial photo broke appearing to show the governor in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook in either blackface or wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook photo but later said he wasn’t one of the two men in it.
In medical schools nationwide, the proportion of medical students who identified as African-American or Black rose from 5.6 percent in 1980 to 7.7 percent in 2016, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The race disparity matters because Black physicians are regarded as able to help the Black community overcome a historical mistrust of the medical system that is rooted in incidents of systemic racism and discrimination.
“It’s been a persistent, stubborn racial disparity in the medical workforce,” says Dr. Vanessa Gamble, a professor at George Washington University. “Medical schools have tried, but it also has to do with societal issues about what happens to a lot of kids in our country these days.”
For their part, medical schools continue to try and boost enrollment among African-Americans and graduation rates by considering applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds when reviewing grades and test scores, connecting doctors of color with elementary and middle schools and awarding more scholarship money, according to USA Today. So far, they are making some progress. The number of medical students who identified as African-American or Black grew from 3,722 in 1980 to 6,758 in 2016, an 82 percent increase, the newspaper reported.
Some colleges and universities are leading the charge to recruit and support Black medical students. New York University, for example, is offering free tuition to medical students who maintain a certain grade point average, which has more than doubled the number of applicants who identify as a member of a group that’s underrepresented in medicine.
Black and Latino students at medical schools in New York rose from 13.5 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 15.4 percent for the past school year, according to USA Today.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County produces more African-Americans who go on to earn dual M.D./Ph.D. degrees than any college in the country. The schools’ Meyerhoff Scholars program, which is open to all but is nearly 70 percent Black, chooses promising high school students for a rigorous undergraduate program that connects them with research opportunities, conferences, paid internships, and study-abroad experiences.
According to USA Today, UMBC also sends students in its Sherman Scholars program to teach math and science in disadvantaged elementary schools in the Baltimore area – exposing children at an early age to the possibility of a career in medicine.
And the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine experienced the largest group of African-American men in school history last year at 10. This is due to the school looking at applications “holistically,” and taking into consideration the obstacles they had to overcome to get them to where they are, including working while in college and whether they had access to tutors.