Grace Davenport has always been interested in becoming a doctor, but she might not have known pursuing a career in medicine was even possible had she not had a pediatrician who looked like her.
Davenport, 16, of Columbus, is Black and if she becomes a doctor like she hopes to, she’ll be one of very few in her field. Just 5% of American doctors identified as Black in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available from the American Association of Medical Colleges.
“Every time I go somewhere outside of my doctor’s office, I get really excited when I see someone who looks like me because I just don’t always see that,” Davenport said.
The share of Black doctors in the U.S. has increased by just 4% in the past 120 years, research released in April from UCLA shows. The share of Black doctors who are men hasn’t increased since the 1940s, according to UCLA.
Davenport hopes she can be part of a generation of doctors who change this nearly stagnant trend.
She was one of about 40 high schoolers from Columbus and other parts of Ohio who participated in “MD Camp” at Ohio State University. The annual summer event run by medical students aims to attract more minority students to careers in health care and provides them with lectures from top doctors, said Rachel Sperling, a second-year medical student and organizer.
“To have people like them who are encouraging them and showing them that people of all different colors and backgrounds can be doctors and pursue medicine and be successful … that’s really the goal here,” Sperling said.
Becoming a doctor ‘seemed unattainable’
Myriad institutional barriers that persist have prevented people such as Davenport from becoming doctors in the past.
With so few Black doctors, many African Americans may never even be treated by one, said Dr. Damon Tweedy, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University and author of the book “Black Men in White Coats: A Doctor’s reflection on Race and Medicine.”
Tweedy himself didn’t see a Black doctor until he was nearing the end of his time in high school, he said. Before then, Tweedy said it hadn’t occurred to him that he could even become a doctor because of the color of his skin.
“I thought those people were somehow special or different,” he said of Black doctors. “It seemed unattainable.”
Making Black doctors more visible could help increase their share of working physicians. But Tweedy said the work of attracting African Americans to the medical field needs to start in grade school.
When Tweedy was in high school, he didn’t know if college was an option for him. One time, Tweedy said a teacher told him that he likely wouldn’t be able to go to college unless he was good at basketball, implying that he wasn’t smart enough or that as a Black man he could only be accepted if he was an athlete.
“There’s a sense that your horizons are very narrow,” Tweedy said. “I think that narrative is huge and embedded in society. … If you try to veer outside of that, people question it.”
It was a Black teacher who steered Dr. Leon McDougle toward the path to medical school.
McDougle grew up in Sandusky, and his fourth-grade teacher was a Black woman and the first non-white teacher he had.
During a parent-teacher conference, McDougle said the teacher told his mom and dad that they needed to start preparing for him to go to college right then. For his parents, neither of whom went to college, that conversation had a big impact and in turn helped set McDougle up for success years later.
Now McDougle serves as president of the National Medical Association, an advocacy group representing African American physicians and patients. He is also the chief diversity officer at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
“That was profound,” McDougle said. “That’s the type of intervention that needs to take place.”
Black distrust of health care system may be a factor
A history of mistrust between African Americans and the health care industry also might be partly to blame for a lack of Black doctors.
One of those cases was the Tuskegee experiment, which examined the effects of untreated syphilis.
The experiment began in 1932 and involved 600 black men, including 399 with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The men in the study were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” were not informed they had syphilis and were not being treated properly for it, according to the CDC.
Another example is Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American woman who was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University in 1951. Without her consent or knowledge, the hospital took cell samples of her tumor.
The cells have been used for decades to study cancer. But the family of Lacks, who ended up dying in 1951, only came to an understanding with the National Institutes of Health for the use and study of Lacks’ cells in 2013.
“I think critics on the other side say: ‘Well, that’s old history,'” Tweedy said. “But really, we’re just one generation removed from segregated hospitals.”
While it’s important to recognize and understand the reasons for the mistrust, McDougle said it’s something that needs to be overcome and can be easily done.
Recently, McDougle saw a patient of his who still hadn’t been vaccinated for COVID-19. The patient, a Black woman, said she was still a little leery of the three vaccines available.
McDougle understood her hesitancy. To ease her concerns, he showed her a video of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman who was the lead scientist tasked with creating Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think that really made a big difference for her,” McDougle said.
Initiatives aim to boost numbers of Black doctors
Ohio State’s summer camp is among several initiatives across the country aiming to boost the number of doctors from underrepresented communities.
Another effort attempting to reach young people is Tour for Diversity in Medicine, a bus that makes stops at different colleges and high schools throughout the country. The group hosts workshops at each stop to educate and inspire minority students interested in becoming physicians and dentists.
For people like Davenport, the camp and similar efforts offer a jump-start on a dream career.
As part of Tuesday’s camp sessions, she took a course in CPR and will leave with a certification in the life-saving procedure. Although Davenport was spending just a few weeks at the camp, she’s hoping to come back to Ohio State for college after she wraps up high school.
Though she always has had an interest in medicine, Davenport said she wants to pursue a career in health care “to show younger people that they can be a doctor.”
Davenport is interested in neurology, psychiatry and obstetrics, but she isn’t sure which field she’d like to go into. For now, she’s just glad she sees a pathway for herself in a field where so many obstacles prevent people who look like her from succeeding.
“I was taught that I am what a doctor looks like. We all are what doctors look like,” Davenport said. “That really helped me and so I just want to put that in other peoples’ minds, too.”
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