FEB. 19, 2016--The title of the event was the question its organizers sought to answer: “Why Black Doctors?” Second-year School of Medicine students GeNita Finley, Veronica Andrews, Chiemeke Nwabueze and Shuk Kei Cheng gathered a group of esteemed panelists on Feb. 9 to help answer it.

But a few weeks before the panel began, the group posed the question to faculty and students. Their responses were then printed under their photographs, which were mounted poster-sized on easels, creating a gallery viewed by attendees that was showcased prior to the panel discussion. A video of Georgetown students and faculty answering "Why Black Doctors" was also shown prior to the panel.

“Why Black Doctors?” was inspired by “White Coats Black Doctors,” a movement uniting minority medical students and physicians across the country.

"According to the American Medical Association, there were 542 black male medical school matriculants in 1978, and in 2014 there were only 512. No other minority group has experienced such declines,” said Finley, who is on the GU School of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion Council of Diversity Affairs. “’White Coats Black Doctors’ addresses that, and ‘Why Black Doctors’ is a way to get our community talking about what is important to minority medical students and physicians.”

The panel included Yolanda Haywood, MD, associate dean of diversity, inclusion and student affairs at George Washington University School of Medicine; Leslie Hinkson, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University; Nicole Jasper, MD, emergency department director at the Coliseum Medical Center in Macon, Ga.; Erica McClaskey, MD, associate professor of family medicine at GUSOM; Lynn McKinley-Grant, MD, associate professor at GUSOM; Lawrence Prograis, MD, senior scientist for special programs and bioethics at the National Institutes of Health; and Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP vice president of advocacy. Byron Jasper, MD, a family medicine health policy fellow at GUMC, moderated the event.

More than 300 students and faculty attended, including students from Howard University College of Medicine and George Washington University School of Medicine. The event was sponsored by American Medical Association, Physicians for Human Rights, William Carolos Williams Society, Healthcare Business Alliance, D.C. Black MBA Association and the Student National Medical Association.

From “Why?” to “Why Not?”

The panelists’ answers to “Why Black Doctors?” can be broken down into two categories: “Why?” and “Why Not?”

In the “why” column, panelists pointed out that black physicians are better positioned to alleviate health disparities and can increase cultural competency among medical students and physicians.

“Studies have shown that patients are more receptive to someone of their own background and black doctors are more likely to work in underserved areas,” said Grant.

While patients might fare better with physicians of a similar background, it is not always realistic or possible. That’s where cultural competency comes in.  

McClaskey told a story about one of her students who, because of a lack of cultural competency, misdiagnosed a bald spot on a black child’s scalp as ringworm. “There was a bald spot on her head,” she said. “But it was because her hair was pulled into several different sections, and it was pulled too tight.”

McClaskey explained to her student that the child’s hairstyle is a popular one in the black community. “It's my obligation to make sure that the students that I train, the residents that I work with and my colleagues recognize their differences but also embrace them. This way, the delivery of medical care, which is what I’m here to do, makes you the healthiest person possible, by understanding where you come from,” she said.

The issue of health disparities was raised several times, most notably by a student who described a lesson on dermatology in which her professor used photos of exclusively light-skinned patients. She asked the panelists, in that situation, what should she do?

“Dermatologic diseases look so different depending on the skin color,” said McKinley-Grant, who is a dermatologist. “If you learn disease in one color, you really can kill patients.”

“You guys have so much power in your hands. You need to ask for those images. Raise your hand and say, ‘I’d like to know what this looks like in a person with dark skin,’” said Jasper.

Why Not?

Black doctors certainly make a positive impact for underserved populations, but what about all patients, and medicine in general?

“We are here to serve our communities, our underserved communities, and we bring a perspective that can only be shared by someone who has a similar background, similar experience,” said Jasper. “But on the flip side, I think it's just as important that we represent ourselves in the greater community and that the greater community can see that we possess the same intellectual abilities as our counterparts.”

In other words, why not black doctors?

“We have a lot to offer,” said Haywood. “When you exclude any group of people, that’s dangerous. Someone could be sitting in this audience that has the cure for HIV.”

Leigh Ann Renzulli
GUMC Communications