By Damien Myers and Khalid Rudo Smith
It’s no secret that if White America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu.
We accept that Black health outcomes are, across nearly every measure, worse than our White counterparts. Ever wonder why? Better yet, ever dream of what would happen if an army of over 100,000 Black doctors descended on our communities to treat hypertension and diabetes plus the mental health issues that are killing us?
Sound like a pipe dream? What if we told you this is actually just what equity looks like and that producing 118,000 more Black doctors over the next 10 years would just be our medical system finally being competent and equitable — and living up to its mission to improve the quality of life for all?
As a Black physician turned educator and entrepreneur, I, Dr. Myers have worked for the last decade to get more Black and Hispanic students, particularly first-generation college students, through college and into medical school.
After I stopped practicing medicine in 2010, I began teaching a biomedical curriculum in Baltimore’s high schools aimed at producing more medical professionals with a heart for our communities. As a result, over 300 Black and Brown students have entered competitive four-year universities and gone on to medical, nursing, or public health programs.
Former President Barack Obama has recognized the work, and there are plenty of studies that call for Black doctors to mentor and be role models, but it takes more than that.
It takes 10 years of commitment, at least, to help a student navigate high school into college and then through medical school. It takes a lot of time to decide on a short list of universities, map out college courses of study, find and apply for internships, work on their weaknesses, study for the MCATs, write personal statements, and connect with mentors wherever they go.
We used to ask, how long will we have to wait for a system that produces enough Black doctors to combat the well-documented racial health gap and needless suffering in Black communities?
Now, our response is to build. We saw an opportunity during the pandemic to expand our in-person programming and make it virtual. Khalid Smith and I partnered to find the virtual Middle2MD program and Stemtogether network through which we can serve hundreds of more students. We also know that building a pipeline of 100,000 Black physicians requires hundreds of more physician mentors and collaboration partners.
Helping 300 in a decade is something to be proud of. But in the next decade, we need to help 300 times that number because the system is not designed for us.
Communities thrive with culturally competent doctors
Relating to patients as three-dimensional humans, builds trust and makes MDs (doctor of medicine) more effective. Flatly said, Black doctors save Black lives and reduce unnecessary health spending. They’re a great investment.
Yet, a representative force of Black physicians proportionate to the Black U.S. population would require 55,000 more Black doctors. This is a 40-year effort at the current rate of 1,450 Black doctors per year.
But the trends are going in the wrong direction.
According to a June 2020 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) study, demographic and aging trends will necessitate 118,000 Black physicians to achieve health care equity for Black patients by 2032. The total capacity of the U.S. medical system is 10,000 doctors per year. Building an army of Black doctors that can heal our communities would require a complete shift or an entirely new infrastructure over the next decade.
Shackled to an institution that doesn’t serve us?
In a 2014 AAMC study of the high school class of 2004, Black students represented 18 percent of high school sophomores that said they aspire to be medical doctors. Later, when that class applied to medical school, however, only 7 percent of the applicants were Black. 2,700 Black students from the class of 2004, a full two-thirds of the number of Black students that statistically should have been expected to apply to medical school — didn’t.
Looking deeper, students with parents without an undergraduate degree made up 59 percent of the aspiring MDs but only 16 percent of eventual medical school applicants. That’s 10,500 aspiring MDs of all races that the system failed. Not to mention 120,000 students that decided that a medical career was not for them. For some reason, we consider this “normal.” These students are much more likely to be Black and Hispanic that come from the communities most in need of care. The pipeline is working great for wealthy White students with parents with master’s degrees, MDs, or doctorates.
The system is working exactly how the system is designed. So what do we do?
Build a pipeline
We need a resourced network of Black medical professionals teaching and mentoring tens of thousands of Black and Brown aspiring doctors and guiding them and their parents through a medical pipeline that is not designed for them.
If you’re a Black or Brown medical professional interested in teaching and mentoring or doing it already, let’s connect! If you have an academic, afterschool, research, or college experience program that you think would help parents and students navigate a pipeline not built for them, let’s connect! A grantmaker interested in sponsoring a few aspiring doctors? A parent of an aspiring medical professional that’s currently in middle or high school, let’s connect!
Deliver rigor in supportive environments
We teach medical school-style courses at a middle and high school level. Why? Because many Black doctors say they thought of themselves as inferior for coming from less-resourced schools. In reality, many of their classmates had simply already been exposed to the content, style of questioning, and reasoning. Tailoring the content for Black and Brown students means exposing them to challenging content but in a collaborative and highly supportive environment.
High school is often too late to foster a student’s identity as a scholar and scientist or to prepare them for the range of four-year institutions they might qualify for. Exposing middle schoolers to a medical-school-style curriculum — and focusing on college and career-ready skills can lead to scholars being identified as gifted and talented, gaining access to more competitive high schools, or qualifying for after-school or summer enrichment programs.
Stay for the duration
Any student we teach is a mentee in our program, and we’re committed to helping them until they achieve a terminal degree. By maintaining connections until they complete medical school, we mitigate some of the challenges of the lack of mentors of color at various institutions. We can also steer candidates towards places where they’ll be most cared for.
Helping parents of first-generation college students is critical. Many national interventions have focused on economics, like reducing the cost of MCAT study materials or med school applications. Instead, we’re a resource to parents demystifying college and career pathways, proactively showing them how to help their sons and daughters, connecting them to curated experiences, and deepening their network of mentors.
Our current medical doctor pipeline is not working to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We know the solutions. The positive impact and need for more Black doctors are well-documented, and Black doctors have long voiced their concerns with the current system. Historically, when we as Black people confront inequities in America, we do it in a manner that makes it better for everyone. That’s who we’ve always been — and now it’s time to put that spirit to work building the cadre of Black health professionals we need.
Damien Myers, MD, MPH left clinical medicine in 2010 to teach and cultivate the next generation of Black health professionals. He created the Middle2MD program to teach a virtual medical school curriculum to middle and high scholars. He co-founded stemtogether.com, a network of parents, students, and medical professionals. He received the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Obama in 2016 and serves on the University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation board of trustees.
Khalid Smith is co-founder of stemtogether.com, a network of parents, students, and professional mentors producing the next generation of medical professionals our communities need. He’s also a partner in the Middle2MD virtual program for middle and high schoolers. Previously he co-founded the teacher-learning organization Lessoncast learning. He has 15 years of experience building community partnerships and is building the next great movement of pioneering for Black social entrepreneurs.
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