When Black Americans get diagnosed with diabetes, HIV, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma or prostate cancer—a few of the growing number of diseases that studies show are more prevalent in the Black community—they are oftentimes getting a prognosis and treatment from the nearly 95 percent of non-Black physicians in the U.S.
For some Black patients, that could be the difference between life and death. Studies have shown that patients are more forthcoming with health information when their doctor looks like them.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders and award-winning director, producer and author Crystal R. Emery have teamed up to launch the initiative, Changing the Face of Medicine, to help raise the percentage of Black physicians in America from 4 percent to 7 percent by 2030. Emery wrote the book “Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine” to showcase how diversity has affected the medical field. The initiative’s latest project is Emery’s documentary, “Black Women in Medicine.” The film will premiere on television this fall.
“The demographics of America are changing,” said Emery about the increase in people of color in America. “But within the medical profession and other professions those demographics are not changing.”
In the film’s opening scene, a group of young Black women file into an auditorium in 2012 for Match Day (a day when medical students find out which hospital they will be working for). You will feel their nervousness and excitement as they open their envelopes, and when they begin to cry and their loved ones begin to cry, you’ll immediately know the sacrifices it took to get to this moment of triumph. There is a sense of familiarity in their joy.
Viewers will also see and hear the stories of doctors who struggled and fought their way through systemic racism in medical school and in hospitals, where they were treated as inferior by both patients and colleagues during the Civil Rights Era. These women paved the way for the young ladies in the opening scene to even dream that they could pursue such a career.
In what Emery described as divine intervention, the idea for the film came about when she met two “Harlem girls.” First she met Dr. Doris Wethers, whose research changed the life expectancy of patients born with sickle cell anemia from 15 years to more than 50 years, and Dr. Beatrix Hamburg, a renowned psychiatrist who advanced the field of child and adolescent psychiatry and was the first self-identified African-American to graduate from Vassar College and the first Black woman to graduate from Yale School of Medicine.
Emery began to wonder why she didn’t know about the incredible advancements that these Black women made, and then she began to wonder about how many more stories of Black women in the medical field weren’t reaching others who desperately needed to hear them.
Elders, appointed as the surgeon general of the United States by President Clinton in 1993, grew up in rural, segregated Arkansas, where she began picking cotton at age 5. Let that resonate for a moment.
“When I think of Black Americans, I think that they are the most brilliant people on the planet,” said Emery. “We survived slavery. People forget that. We survived being denied the basic human requirements. And we’re still here.”
Although outwardly racism appears to be condemned, recent events and the lack of diversity in certain professions are evidence of the racially motivated constraints that still lay beneath the surface of “progress.” Dr. Claudia Thomas, the first African-American orthopedic surgeon and the first female graduate of the Yale University Orthopedic Program, bluntly explained in the film that there is no such thing as “post-racial.” The new generation of Black physicians will have to face racial obstacles that are not always visible, and not knowing who’s against you comes with its own challenges.
To counter systemic racism, some of the more experienced doctors have gotten on admissions committees at medical schools, so that they can influence who gets admitted into medical programs. If the ones with the power are not diverse, then diversity cannot trickle down to the student body.
Black girls and boys throughout the country need to be reminded of how resilient Blacks had to be and still are. In “Black Women in Medicine,” there’s strength in transparency. Although viewers will see education, professionalism and, although not talked about, the implications of financial security, those achievements won’t feel out of reach to children growing up in impoverished neighborhoods with minimum resources.
Dr. Karen Morris-Priester, an anesthesiologist, grew up in the projects and had her first child at age 16. By the time she began medical school, she was a single mother of five and couldn’t even pass her college entrance exam. In the film, she shares a memory of when she had to leave class early to go home and stock her apartment up with candles and flashlights because her electric bill was due and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to pay it before the power company disconnected it.
Recently the team working on the Changing the Face of Medicine initiative visited children in Chicago.
“You’d be amazed at the number of children who have never met a Black doctor,” said Emery.
The impact of this film and the campaign as a whole is one that transcends generations. Parents who accompany their children to these events are equally empowered, especially when they see someone like Morris-Priester, who made a career for herself despite facing the same adversities they may be facing.
“The point was to create images about Black women that were very different, very positive, and stories that were untold,” said Emery. “Dr. Elders puts it so eloquently, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’”
To reach the goal of having at least 7 percent of physicians in this country be Black by 2030, the quality of education in predominantly Black neighborhoods should be overhauled. Emery, Elders and everyone dedicated to making the increase a reality are making sure that the most vulnerable members of our society see no limits to what they can achieve.
“One of things that is wonderful about what we do is that we work with other organizations, so there are a lot of folks from across the country who are all working to increase the number of our children to be successful in STEM programs, because that’s where you have to start,” said Emery. “Nobody wakes up when they’re 18 years old and says, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to medical school.’”
For more information on Changing the Face of Medicine, the book “Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine” and the film “Black Women in Medicine,” please visit www.changingthefaceofmedicine.org.