Med Student Reflections on 'Black Men in White Coats'

Saturday, February 27, 2021

As a Black male medical student passionate about increasing representation in medicine, I knew I had to tune in to the Black Men in White Coats film screening hosted by UCSF Black Men in Medicine on Feb. 11 as part of their Black History Month programming.

The underrepresentation issues this event shed light on, most of which we are all very aware of, were yet another reminder that I am among a select few fortunate enough to be on the path to becoming a physician — a Black male one at that.

More than anything, watching the film strengthened my belief that without intentionality and meaningful action, this disparity will only persist.

Why should you care?

Well, representation affects health outcomes and ultimately saves lives, and consequently, should be a major priority for all of us who care about the communities we serve.

Though the documentary largely focused on the dire lack of Black men in medicine, it also gave significant insight into how we can be part of the solution and work to bridge this ever-widening gap.

Importantly, it first acknowledged that this disparity didn’t just randomly come about and subsequently dove into some of the potential reasons there are so few Black men in medicine.

While the root seems to be multifactorial, there were definitely some overarching themes that were highlighted throughout the film and the panel discussion, which featured Dr. Michelle Albert, Associate Dean of Admissions of the UCSF School of Medicine, Dr. Shawn Hervey-Jumper, Program Co-Director of the UCSF neurosurgery residency program, and other prominent Black UCSF physicians.

As was asked numerous times throughout the film and the panel, why are Black men entering medical school and becoming doctors at disproportionately lower rates? Is the onus on medical schools to bolster recruitment efforts?

Although I think it is partly an institutional responsibility, a lot of the problem seems to be more upstream and has to do with a lack of exposure at a young age.

Because there are so few Black physicians in general, Black children often don’t see people who look like them wearing white coats and seeing patients.

I was fortunate to have a parent who is a physician, so I was exposed to medicine at a very early age. Not only did I have my mom to look up to, but I also had her friends, a lot of whom were also Black physicians whose careers I wanted to model mine after.

Many others aren’t so lucky. As was stated many times throughout the film, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

A lot of the other factors contributing to this underrepresentation stem from the fact that medicine as a field is simply very inaccessible.

Of course, we want our physicians to be excellent at their job, but a lot of the mechanisms in place to ensure this have been proven ineffective.

What some believe to be robust measures of the quality of a physician have been shown to be yet another barrier, blocking the entry of talented students who may simply just not have the same opportunities and resources that others do.

Did they have access to the expensive MCAT prep courses and tutors that many students employ? Did they have the ability to focus strictly on their schoolwork or were they overburdened by other life stressors?

I believe that further exploring the why behind a low MCAT score or GPA, which a number of medical schools already seem to do, will be key in working towards equity and increased representation.

Affordability is yet another gatekeeper that deters students who aren’t able to pay the inordinate costs of taking the MCAT, applying to medical school, and traveling for interviews.

Even more of a hindrance is the cost of medical school itself and the associated debt, which are completely reasonable reasons to be repulsed.

Thus, we must think about how we can minimize these barriers, whether it be through targeted scholarships or application fee waivers.

While these funding sources exist at various schools throughout the country, it’s simply not enough. Such efforts have to be more widely supported and adopted.

This is where we need institutions to step up and take coordinated, actionable steps to recruit underrepresented students.

Further, there is a leaky pipeline from elementary school to college, where Black students often aren’t exposed, supported, and encouraged to pursue science as a whole.

There is also a lack of robust mentorship, which is yet another form of exposure.

A number of the panelists even discussed how integral pipeline programs were in helping them get to medical school, highlighting the importance of such programs in increasing representation.

Community outreach and school partnerships must be more widely initiated and recruitment must occur at a young age because unfortunately, by the time these students attend college, encouraging them to pursue medicine might just be too late.

Numerous experts in the film cited the fact that if we don’t expose students at the elementary or middle school stage, then we miss an integral time to influence their career interests moving forward.

So as we think about this widespread underrepresentation of Black men in medicine, I think it’s important that we think about all of the nuanced factors contributing to this disparity and let the “why” drive our solutions.