Has medicine's racial barrier been broken?

By Physician Sense
Published February 20, 2020

Key Takeaways

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

“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.” 

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