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America has an urgent need for Black doctors: ‘It’s hard to be what you can’t imagine’

Nada Hassanein published in USA TODAY
December 26, 2020

Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan was confused when she didn’t match into a pediatric surgery training program. She had it all: research, publications, strong references.

“You know why you’re not getting in?” a senior surgeon told her after several rejections. “It’s because there are none – there are no Black female pediatric surgeons in this country.”

She applied again. And twice more. Her mentor called hospitals, singing her praises and asking why she hadn’t been matched. The chairman of surgery at a large hospital told her mentor it couldn’t take a chance on training a Black woman.

That was in the 1990s. Eventually Hayes-Jordan matched with a program and became the first Black female pediatric surgeon in the U.S.

Two decades later, there’s still a shortage of Black doctors. Just 5% of American doctors identify as Black, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Of the more than 21,000 students in U.S. medical schools in the 2018-2019 school year, roughly 7% were Black.

There’s a nationwide movement to change that.

Last week, Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically Black medical school, and health care company CommonSpirit Health announced an initiative to develop a pipeline of Black doctors.

The plan includes opening five Morehouse regional medical school campuses in underserved communities where CommonSpirit has health care facilities, as well as recruiting students who come from communities with a shortage of health care providers. Cultural competency in patient care will be an anchor of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

Helping a patient become healthier, said Morehouse School of Medicine dean Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, partly depends on a patient’s trust in a doctor, a positive doctor-patient relationship and an understanding of the patient’s environment.

“And many times, that occurs through a cultural lens,” Montgomery Rice said. “If you can relate to something about that person’s story, or have some indication of what their experience has been, then the recommendations you make as a provider (are) going to make a difference.”

Several studies have shown patients of color benefit from having doctors of color. An analysis of Florida hospital records published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found Black babies were less likely to die in the care of Black doctors than white doctors.

And as the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare disparities in health outcomes and health care access among Black, Latino and Native American communities, the need for a more diverse medical workforce is more important than ever, Montgomery Rice said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic really did sort of pull the curtain down,” she said. “It’s not just improving access to health care. It’s actually giving an opportunity for people to benefit from the access to that care. And a provider helps with that.”

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‘It’s hard to be what you can’t imagine’

Several groups have been working for decades to help build up more Black doctors.

The Association of Black Women Physicians, founded in the 1980s, mentors women of color throughout their careers and offers scholarships for medical school.

“It’s hard to be what you can’t imagine,” said Dr. Sylvia Gates Carlisle, president of the group. “If only 3% of the Black physicians in America are Black women, it makes it hard for folks to even imagine what they haven’t seen. We try to be visible in the community to be role models for what’s possible.”

Gates Carlisle, a geriatric doctor, said the association’s Sister-to-Sister program aims to empower Black female doctors-in-training by matching them with senior physicians.

“One can feel very isolated, wonder about experiences,” she said. “Having other people who have been through the path and the process can be encouraging and can validate certain experiences.”

Hayes-Jordan said mentorship was crucial in overcoming obstacles as a woman of color in medicine, such as having to prove she was worth investing in.

The researcher, professor and accomplished surgeon of pediatric oncology lends her experiences to her own mentees as president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons.

The group’s mission, she said, “is to foster the development of African American and Latino surgeons across the United States and get them into positions to be successful.”

She recalled her own mentor recruiting her to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for a pediatric oncology fellowship. That kind of advocacy helps elevate people of color when unconscious bias colors those who review applications, she said.

“I didn’t know I was going to be the first. But my mentor knew. And now I pass that on to students and trainees that I mentor – because I know that they don’t know what they don’t know,” Hayes-Jordan said.

She not only gives them advice, but she also advocates for them. “I’m calling people on their behalf and telling them how wonderful they are,” she said. “People may not recognize their implicit bias, and you really need to remind the individual that this person of color is as qualified, if not more qualified, than the other candidates.”

Young people of color need that mentorship early, she said, because their talents and smarts may have been overlooked in school, chipping away at their confidence and ambition.

“We need to be mentors and sponsors all the way back to the middle school level,” she said. “We really need to identify students who are doing an excellent job in math and science. And mentor them, and encourage them – and not lose sight of them.”

Reach Nada Hassanein at or on Twitter @nhassanein_.