“He died because he’s Black!” screamed his mother, inconsolable in the intensive care unit as her unresponsive teenage son underwent a formal neurologic examination. We had done all that we could. Mr. M had experienced a cardiac arrest for unknown reasons at home, and his mom felt the emergency medical technicians treated her son differently, possibly even withholding care, because of his race. She already knew what the result of the neurologic testing would be, as did I, a 2nd-year family medicine resident at the time. Now I’m an assistant professor, and I still remember the despair in that mother’s voice and the weight of her statement.
His mother may be right. The report Unequal Treatment showed us that health care disparities still exist among racial and ethnic groups even when you control for income, age, insurance, and severity of medical condition. Regardless of the facts of Mr. M’s clinical course, his mother lost a son that day. Her trust and view of the health care system will never be the same. Our health care system often fails people that look like Mr. M. It fails people that look like me.
Being new faculty and the only Black, male member in our department of family medicine (DFM), which comprises over 200 faculty, comes with its share of challenges and opportunities.
I love what I do. I’m so incredibly grateful that I found a job where they pay me to do what I love: care for patients and teach the next generation of physicians. I find that to be a great privilege and honor. However, I pay close attention to what opportunities I take on, as I try to minimize the “minority tax” I have to pay.
The minority tax refers to the extra responsibilities placed on minority faculty in the name of diversity. This tax is extremely complex, and it is sometimes self-imposed by faculty due to a sense of responsibility they feel. For example, as a young faculty member in medical education, I know a day will come when I have to decide if I’ll be the one implementing curriculum or the one creating it. I worry that my ability to develop curriculum and essentially create change will be limited by my own obligation to make sure students of color see faculty that look like them. Nationally, only 4 percent of full-time faculty in academic medicine are Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Native American/Alaskan Native.
Being an example for students of color is something I don’t take lightly. However, I have mixed emotions at times. I’m happy to stand with them in solidarity on issues that disproportionately affect them and people that look like them, but it can be emotionally exhausting at times — never more so than at last year’s White Coats for Black Lives annual die-in on the medical school campus.
During our demonstration, I felt a variety of emotions. Pride, as I lay on the ground with over 50 medical students, residents and other faculty as we reflected on dire outcomes inequity has in our society and the importance of health professionals using their power and their voice to advocate for change. Sad that not a single one of my family medicine colleagues was out there with me. Tired, as I reflected on the long road ahead to achieve equity for all people. Determined to continue to advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in medicine, starting with my own DFM.
Though family medicine boasts to be a specialty that advocates EDI, I was disappointed in the work happening in my own DFM. When I brought up some of my concerns with my department chair, to my surprise, he agreed. Additionally, he provided support and a stage to make improving EDI a priority in our department. I, along with some of my colleagues, formed a working group with that mission, and we called ourselves the Justice League.
Through the Justice League, we’re changing the culture of the DFM and have a lot of accomplishments and ongoing endeavors in less than a year of work, including the following:
- Changing our mission, vision, and values statement to reflect our verbal commitment to EDI.
- Providing monthly education sessions to DFM personnel on issues of EDI in medicine and how they can make change.
- Reinvigorating a conversation among our researchers on how we incorporate EDI in all of our research.
- Changing our website to make EDI more visible.
- Collaborating with our clinical affairs team in changing their hiring practices.
- Analyzing our health outcomes based on race and ethnicity at our largest clinic.
- Conducting a climate survey to take a hard look at ourselves and areas of improvement.
- Partnering with an outside consultant to do a training on racism in medicine.
- Lastly, we’re in the process of creating a formal leadership position for our department with dedicated funding.
I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done and know we have so much more we can do both inside and outside of our department. More importantly, I look forward to seeing the impact of this work and our future work will have on my colleagues, medical students, and our community.
Though I have little faith that we’ll get to equal treatment in this country, I am proud to be someone fighting to close the gap, one step at a time.
Cleveland Piggott is a family medicine physician.
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