4 April 2023
Recent news reports have noted that, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), only 5.7 percent of American physicians are African-American, highlighting a shortage of Black doctors in the U.S. As a practicing physician who is African-American, I am part of that 6 percent.
I also represent part of the 2 percent of Black doctors in the U.S. who are women.
While people are alarmed at these numbers, this shortage has been present for quite some time and continues to be a challenge. As the population has increased, the numbers have not.
When I think about these statistics, I reflect on my own personal journey and the challenges I experienced along the way that could help shed some light on the shortage we have historically faced and are still experiencing today.
I had a nontraditional journey into health care. In college, I studied psychology and worked with children with autism. From that experience, I developed a desire to learn more about the human body as well as a passion for helping people. I then studied to become a physician’s assistant (PA). While working in urgent care and family medicine as a PA, I knew in my heart that I wanted to do more. I wanted to become a doctor.
Unfortunately, I had never seen any doctors that looked like me and struggled with doubt. When I shared my goals with people I would often hear, “just stay a PA,” “that’s a lot of school” and “are you sure you can do that.” This is why representation matters for African-Americans. We need to see more of ourselves and people who look like us in the profession to know that it is possible.
With the encouragement and support of my father, I was able to push those voices aside and pursued becoming a physician. I was also fortunate to have someone help me navigate the process of getting into medical school, which involved significant preplanning.
Establishing a network in advance to gain clinical hours and shadowing hours, understanding which courses to take and having help with preparing for the MCAT was critical. These steps can be barriers for African-Americans, as we often do not have access to robust networks or resources. It helps to have a mentor, someone to invest time in you. Most importantly, it helps you to not give up.
Thankfully while working as a PA, there were two physicians, Dr. Donald Farrimond and Dr. Donald McGee, who believed in me. They assisted me with understanding the application process including how to create a personal statement and prepare for my interview. Once I was accepted into medical school, they also helped to ensure that I stayed there.
Medical school was not easy. It took seven years for me to become a physician and there was a huge depth of knowledge I had to obtain along with securing a residency. In addition to the time commitment, there was a great financial burden. I had to quit my job as a PA and had no income of my own coming in.
I also experienced feelings of isolation sometimes being the only Black person in my classes or rotations. I was called names and faced racism from patients who didn’t want to see me or believe I was a doctor based on my skin color. It would have been nice to have another Black student or Black resident to talk with about these experiences.
With all of its challenges, I have no regrets. I cherish my job and am truly grateful to those including my dad and husband who supported me along the way.
Closing the gap
To start to address the shortage, I believe there should be more diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging training implemented at the institutional level. There are still some prejudiced beliefs and unconscious biases held about who can become a doctor as well as who should be admitted into medical school. We have to do more to change these beliefs.
Additionally, it’s important for the medical community and hospitals to mentor and invest time in students of color, helping them to expand their networks and overcome some of the barriers they will face.
Scholarships are another great way to support students. Nonprofit organizations such as Black Girl White Coat provide representation, mentorship and scholarships to Black and Hispanic students interested in careers in health care.
As part of the 6 percent, I share in the responsibility too. I will continue to mentor students and utilize platforms such as this, social media and television to show the world — and that little girl who looks like me — what is possible.
Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell is a board-certified, family medicine physician practicing urgent care medicine. She is based in Reno, where she serves as medical director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group as well as the medical director for the Washoe County Sexual Assault Response Team and is founder of Beyond Clinical Walls. Additionally, Curry-Winchell is a regular national medical correspondent and TEDx speaker.