The fight to save Howard University College of Medicine

Our country is at risk of losing an iconic institution that has played a pivotal role in the history of medical education. A school, which has produced some of the boldest pioneers in medicine, could lose accreditation upon the opening of a new hospital that will shunt away 40 percent of their current patients. Scores of our brightest potential medical students will be ripped away from the communities that desperately need their expertise.

Did Howard University College of Medicine (HUCM) come to mind? It should — for the purposes of physician diversity and diversity’s impact on patients.

According to the Department of Education, HUCM and Meharry have produced 80 percent of all practicing black physicians in the US. Even now, of the 141 schools that can offer MD degrees to black students, HUCM is still responsible for training approximately 10 percent of those students every year.

Furthermore, for as much as medical schools enjoy touting “diversity” in their mission statements, the actual numbers tell a different story. According to JAMA, 7.5 percent of all matriculating medical students are black which lags in comparison to the 13.4 percent of the general U.S. population that is black. Given Tuskegee and the origin of HeLa cells, it’s unsurprising that studies consistently describe the distrust between black patients and the medical community. It’s also unsurprising, then, that doctor-patient relationships are shown to improve when both share the same race and background.

The threat to the future of Howard is the new East End Hospital of Washington DC, which would be run by the George Washington University Hospital (GWUH). If the East End Hospital is allowed to open while excluding HUCM faculty and students, HUCM would likely lose accreditation due to an insufficient patient base for its student population. While an amendment has been added to include Howard physicians and students at GWUH, the hospital has issued an ultimatum. Paraphrased, “there will be a hospital without Howard, or no hospital at all.”

The vote on the bill to construct the new East End hospital will take place on Tuesday, December 18th. Even if you are not a resident of Washington DC, you can still call the DC City Council representatives and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office and express your support for the amended bill that allows HUCM physicians and medical students to practice and train at the new facility. And to the administrators of GWU medical school, please utilize your influence with GWUH to stand by your mission statement to educate “a diverse workforce of tomorrow’s leaders in medicine” and to embrace “the challenge of eliminating health disparities and transforming health care.”

Ensuring the stability of HUCM and schools like it, however, is still a mere Band-Aid on the larger issue of diversity in medicine. We should not be satisfied with having historically black medical colleges shoulder the brunt of the diversity pipeline. Even with HUCM, the AAMC reported that black medical school applicants still have lower acceptance rates than their white and Asian peers. We need to do a better job of removing systemic barriers and biases that negatively impact opportunities for black students to set upon the path of becoming doctors.

This problem starts long before a black student fills out AMCAS. A myriad of factors may impede diversity in medicine. One of the easiest resources to implement is an increase in role model exposure; schools could partner with their local Students National Medical Association chapters to start exposing children to the possibility of working in the medical profession. When a black student finally sends in their AMCAS application, admissions officers could even remove names and pictures from applications before they are given to evaluators and discussed in committee.

While we specifically discussed Howard and black medical students, we must recognize this diversity problem includes other marginalized communities, too. Diversity impacts our community and its patients, so we can only be best as a profession when we support all our potential future physicians. That means fighting for Howard.

Vicky Li and Naveen Balakrishnan are medical students.

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