Medical students have the responsibility to correct racial inequities

Before I walked hospital hallways as a medical student, I walked high school hallways as a science teacher in Houston’s 5th Ward.  Each year, the most difficult time for me was graduation. The pride of watching my students, most African American, achieve a well-earned success was mixed with the sadness of losing incredible people as they moved on. Also mixed in was the humbling understanding of the incredible disparity between their experience and my own, as a white man. My suburban high school graduation had been an expectation, while these students had to fight to get to that stage against incredible adversity and a society not built for them as racial minorities.

The fact it took me until my mid 20s to begin understanding the privilege of my upbringing and the adversity of the African American experience is something I look back at with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. This sentiment stayed with me as I shifted from one societal institution fraught with racial disparities, education, into another with similar issues in medicine. While I will never truly understand the daily struggle of African Americans battling our engrained systems of oppression, I hope with these words, I am able to be an ally in solidarity.

The murder of George Floyd at the knee of a white police officer has once again reminded us of the inequities on which our country is built. The subsequent protests are fighting not only police brutality, but systemic oppression in all our society’s institutions. Whether historically during the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment or today through the numerous health care disparities (the most recent example during the COVID pandemic) between White and Black Americans, medicine has proven it is one of those sectors.

As the future of health care, we, as medical students, have the responsibility to take action to correct these racial inequities. First, many of us will soon decide our future specialty and where we will practice. Usually, students consider the subject material, types of procedures involved, or a program’s competitiveness. However, a consideration frequently missing is the patient population they want to serve. The AAMC Medical School Graduation Questionnaire, administered annually to every graduating class, asks students about their career motivations. Only 35 percent percent of respondents planned to care for an underserved population, populations in which a higher percentage of African Americans reside. Many of us were accepted to medical school, writing heartfelt essays about our desire to help those that need it most. This sentiment must persist through our residency choice as well. If we want to begin changing racial health care inequities, we must reevaluate why we choose to practice medicine in the first place.

In addition, we must increase the number of African American physicians. Research shows that African American patients, many of whom may understandably distrust our society’s systems, have greater trust and better health outcomes when treated by a physician of the same race. Yet only 7.3 percent of the current graduating medical school class and only 5 percent of currently practicing physicians identify as African American, while 13 percent of our country’s population is African American. To prepare the next generation of physicians to be as diverse as our country needs, we must actively support organizations that work towards this. Organizations such as Black Men in White Coats and White Coats for Black Lives fight for improved recruitment of African Americans to the field of medicine.

Also, through my time in public education, I saw the incredible need to better support low-income students through the expensive and rigorous path to physician-hood. We must support organizations that expose minority students to the field of medicine and support them throughout their journey. Health Professions Recruitment and Exposure Program (HPREP) at in Dallas and Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens (MERIT) in Baltimore assist minority students locally, and Mentoring in Medicine and Diverse Medicine Inc. does this work nationally. As medical students, it is our responsibility to inspire the next generation of physicians and ensure they are as diverse as the population we will be treating.

These protests are forcing our country to acknowledge that we have failed to protect members of our society. Our country deserves to know that their health care system accepts that failure and promises a better future. As medical students, we must take action to remedy these inequities our system created. As we walk down our paths to physician-hood, we must walk with the understanding of the historical inequities of our past, and actively work to bend our paths closer to justice for all in this country.

Stephen Haff is a medical student. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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