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It’s no secret that Black doctors are incredibly underrepresented in the U.S. medical field. Despite making up roughly 12% of the population, they account for only 5% of doctors nationwide.
Yet, the racial reckoning over George Floyd’s police lynching in 2020 has spread to all areas of society, including enrollment rates in medical school.
In an unprecedented spike, Black student enrollment at medical schools soared 21% since 2020, according to a report from Boston’s local NPR station GBH.
“We have never seen such an increase within a short amount of time,” said Norma Poll-Hunter, a leader of workforce diversity efforts at the Association of Medical Colleges. Her data shows patients are more likely to report satisfactory care when they can see themselves in the doctors who care for them.
“When Black physicians, male physicians are working with Black male patients, we see better outcomes in preventative care or on cardiac care,” Poll-Hunter added. “We’ve also seen that in terms of infant mortality, as well.”
The racist roots of the modern medical field
The soaring rates means there will soon be more Black doctors in the field, an encouraging sign. Yet, the incredibly small percentage of Black doctors currently working didn’t occur by accident. Infecting itself into the very structures of society, system racism in the early 20th century had a damaging effect on the creation of more Black doctors.
A report published in 1910 revolutionized the way medical schools taught and operated. Notably, it also led to the closure of several Black-serving medical schools in the legally segregated society.
Published by Abraham Flexner, the report was credited with transforming and standardizing medical education. Significant improvements to medical education, higher admission standards, adherence to scientific methods in research and practice, and oversight by state licensure boards came about as a result of the report.
Yet, for underfunded Black medical schools, the steep cost associated with making the changes was too much to bear. Based on Flexner’s racist views, the crushing blow to Black medical schools was seemingly inevitable.
In Chapter 14 of The Flexner Report, titled “The Medical Education of the Negro,” Flexner states that Black people should be trained in sanitation because he believed, “A well-taught negro sanitarian will be immensely useful; an essentially untrained negro wearing an M.D. degree is dangerous.”
The racist notion in an already racist country led to declining rates of Black med students in the years that followed.
Medical schools push equity as Black med students break barriers
Meanwhile, a new generation of Black students refuses to let old notions control the future of modern medicine.
Sabrina Lima is a daughter of Haitian immigrants and one of 26 Black med students in the 195-member class at Tufts Medical School in Boston. She said her mother, a nurse, inspired her to pursue becoming a doctor.
“I’ve been on medical missionary trips with her, so seeing her in medicine — she’s this amazing woman,” she said. “I just love how she serves others, and I want to serve people in a similar way,” Lima told GBH.
Due to the racial reckoning, some medical schools have begun to focus more on diversity and eliminating barriers to underserved communities.
According to Poll-Hunter, more med schools are waiving application fees and investigating the unconscious bias in their admissions process. With an average debt load of $240,000 for students who’ve graduated, schools are beginning to look at ways to bring more marginalized students into the medical field.
Ultimately, five of seven Black-serving medical schools closed as a result of the racist Flexner report. One study from August 2020 found that there would’ve been an additional 35,315 Black doctors in the field if those five schools hadn’t closed.
Still, for Black med students like Sabrina Lima, the past won’t dictate her passion for the future.
“I definitely want to open up clinics,” she said. “I want to work in low-income areas.”