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Black health care workers shine spotlight on issues of diversity in medical field



(NEW YORK) — As the U.S. continues to celebrate Black History Month, Black medical workers are shining a spotlight on the lack of diversity in their profession.

A biennial study conducted in 2018 by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that only 5% of physicians in the U.S. are Black or African American, compared to 56.2% of U.S. physicians who are white.

While the interest for health-related careers among Blacks and African Americans in the U.S. has increased in recent years, with the Association of American Medical Colleges reporting 10.5% of students entering medical schools across the country in 2020 are Black or African American, only 3.6% of medical school faculty are Black or African American.

“What happens when it’s only 5% of physicians who are African American? 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% of professors who are African American males and only 0.26% of professors that are African American females,” said Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, the surgeon-in-chief at North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill and a tenured professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

“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 American. Latinos are about the same numbers as well,” added Hayes-Jordan.

Black representation in the medical field is important more than ever as the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black Americans.

Black individuals are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white Americans and three times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the only time in history when Black individuals have been disproportionately affected in terms of health care, it has displayed the deep-rooted disparities among Black individuals, racism in medicine and mistrust, all issues which go back centuries.

“There is an environment that creates distrust and mistrust within our community,” Dr. Martha A. Dawson, president of the National Black Nurses Association, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “When you look at any health indicator, [we] African Americans always have the worst outcomes. At a systemic standpoint, health care 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.”

“There’s a heightened conversation because of COVID, but what’s going to happen when COVID is finally brought under control?” she added. “If we want to really be committed to changing the health outcomes in the African American community, we need more African American physicians and nurses and other health care providers.”

To fight the effects of racism in medicine and address the lack of representation in the medical field, many organizations and current health professionals are working to bolster the percentage of Black medical workers.

Here’s how Dawson, Hayes-Jordan and more are addressing the need for more representation in the medical field:

Society of Black Academic Surgeons

Since 1989, the Society of Black Academic Surgeons has worked to increase the number of Black and underrepresented minority surgeons in the U.S. by offering mentorship for current and aspiring surgeons, as well as providing a community for diverse surgeons to learn from others in the field.

Hayes-Jordan is currently at the helm of the organization.

“It’s a really gratifying organization to be a part of,” Hayes-Jordan told Good Morning America. “We have such a problem with not having enough African American surgeons.”

Hayes-Jordan pointed out the need for Black surgeons in the U.S.

“There are many studies that show that Black patients prefer to have a Black surgeon,” said Hayes-Jordan. “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.”

Hayes-Jordan’s hope is for the number of Black medical school matriculants to reflect the U.S. population of Black Americans, which is 15%.

“We’re hoping that one day it’ll be parallel,” said Hayes-Jordan.

National Black Nurses Association

When it comes to recruiting the next generation of Black nurses in America, the National Black Nurses Association has a multi-faceted agenda to ensure diversity in nursing.

At a local level, the organization, which is made up of 114 chapters in 35 states plus Washington, D.C., works with elementary schools to introduce the field of nursing as a profession to young students, and let them know at an early age the skills they’ll need if they want to become nurses in the future.

“What we found is that we have to move all the way back to the elementary schools to get them to understand that nursing is a science-based discipline,” said Dawson. “You have to be really good in your STEM courses and we want them to know moving forward, they need to be taken.”

In addition, the group hosts an annual conference for kids to learn about nursing and other health care disciplines.

The organization, which is made up of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nursing students, also provides mentorship opportunities for students to sync up with nurses throughout their time as students and to find support if they find themselves struggling with coursework. The group also provides annual scholarships for students.

On a national level, the organization — which was formed in 1971 — meets with congressmen each year in Washington, D.C., for National Black Nurses Day to discuss health policies.

“Our mission really is to support African American nurses in terms of their professional development so that we can actually then serve our population and also marginal populations to improve health outcomes,” said Dawson.

Project Diversify Medicine

While there are many organizations that have been around for years, some doctors are taking it upon themselves to reach the next generation of medical workers in a relatable way.

Through Project Diversify Medicine, Dr. Ashley Denmark of St. Louis has created a platform on social media to help underrepresented doctors get into medical school.

It’s also become a space for Black doctors to have conversations about what they’re experiencing on the job.

Denmark said she started Project Diversify Medicine in 2015 shortly after completing her first month of residency at a hospital in South Carolina.

“I was in a predominately white program and I was the only Black intern at that program at the time,” said Denmark, who explained that she experienced many microaggressions while on the job from colleagues. “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.”

After starting Project Diversify Medicine, Denmark said she began to hear stories that echoed hers. So the group became a way for other medical workers to share their experiences and address issues such as stereotyping in the workplace and navigating uncomfortable situations.

“There’s nothing we can’t talk about,” said Denmark. “We want to be able to have these conversations — healthy conversations.”

In addition to creating a forum for Black doctors, Project Diversify Medicine has become a place to discuss health disparities in the Black community during the pandemic and inform Black patients about the importance of getting vaccinated.

“The Black community has reason to be concerned,” said Denmark. “But my job and my passion and my reason for being here on this earth is for me to help bridge that gap and really help show why we need to start engaging in our health care.”

“I empower my patients all the time,” added Denmark. “You have rights in this health care 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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