January 13, 2021

Being a Black Woman in Medicine

FILED IN: Dr. Kas

Example photo of a Black woman in medicine

This topic will touch on some of my fears and insecurities that I face on a regular day. I am sure I am not the only one, with some days it being more real and ‘in your face’ than others. First off, being black in medicine comes with its own challenges. Now remember these are my own views so no one except myself can negate how I see or view this topic. On one hand, I worry a patient or family may ask to see another doctor the moment I step into the room, making me feel or think I lack competency. While on the other hand, I carry the burden and struggle of being black in America and embody what it means ‘to make it’. Being black doesn’t mean I know all black people’s struggle. But what it does mean, for me, is that the impression I make on someone may change how they see black people in the future. I know, it sounds crazy, but it is the burden I feel. I can make or break someone’s sentiment about a race based on one interaction. Am I the only one? What do I do I to mitigate this, I work every day harder than the rest, so I never allow someone to build that negative perception that could be projected onto others. This isn’t just for me but it’s for black people. Who asked me to take this on, no one but somehow it feels like America did? Maybe its just me, but social media posts, tags, and comments make me feel otherwise.

Now as a black woman the burden goes even deeper. It isn’t just race, now its gender or the intermingling of the two? Honestly my best description of what happens is, it’s exhausting! Now I just laugh sometimes because it’s better than crying. First off, we are one of few. Have the numbers increased, yes ever so slightly! The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that 2017 was the first year women made up 50.7% of medical school classes. That was only three years ago. The AAMC also looked at race distribution in medicine in 2018 and noted Black or African American physician only make up about 5% of the physician population. The good news is that maybe down the line there might be more women physicians than male physicians over time. The sad news is that Black or African American physicians are few and far between. Hence, why I identify with a unicorn (catch post before if you missed it). Let’s not get started on Black male physicians! For one, I am not one and two, they are even more of a unicorn than I am. This profession has to do better. Our communities must see themselves in our profession. This is exactly why I take pride in the recruitment of underrepresented minorities in medicine. But I digress. 

Let me throw one more statistic at you, then it will just be my ranting and raving, maybe even some storytelling. Medicine is and has always been a ‘good ol’ white boys club’. Sad to say but it’s true, especially in academic medicine. The AAMC reported that in 2015 (I know five years ago, but honestly not much has changed) women make up 39% of full-time faculty, 32% of those promoted to full professor, and 16% of department chairs. This is indicative of the barriers and disparities women face. Now back to minority women in medicine, we only make up 13% based on the 2018-2019 report. I mean come on, what are we doing in medicine? Honestly, it saddens me that my profession hasn’t moved further along. Why aren’t black women (or women of color) going into academia? I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that it is no fun finally getting to sit at the table and everyone acts like you aren’t even there. I have experienced it and you feel smaller each time it happens. Actually, now I just laugh about it. Instead, I make a point to speak and ensure that I am spoken to, but honestly that took time and it’s draining. But I chose this for my profession, so I talk about it with colleagues and leave it at that. Well, I did until this post! 

So, I touched or barely grazed the surface of the negative aspects but let me tell you my joys. What I love most about it is that I am different, I am unique, I am the unicorn. People often ask my opinion about how to better care for their patients. (yes, their black patients). No, I don’t always have the answer, but I help when I can. It makes me feel like my opinion in caring for the underserved matters and if it makes a difference and changes patient outcomes, then ding, ding I have hit a JOY! But my favorite part about being a black woman physician is hearing my patient say, ‘I have never had a black doctor’ and watching their eyes twinkle as if new possibilities have blossomed. It is the greatest feeling. Some people might say, ‘That’s sad!’, but honestly it was my truth growing up, so I get it. But watching their entire demeanor and interest change simply because I walked into the room, is breathtaking! Absolute joy. It doesn’t end here though, it gets better. It’s the parent or grandparent’s reaction that really overflows my cup. It’s the ‘I’m proud of you’ or the ‘God has blessed us’ or even the ‘You made my day (or their child’s)’. My cup overflows with love when this occurs (the cup=my soul/my heart, in case you missed it). This is why being a unicorn isn’t bad. It’s the JOY turned into HOPE that just does it for me.

I use these experiences, good and bad, to mentor other black women or women of color in medicine. We all need each other. We all need to find one another to connect and express the bad so we can bask in the good. Reach out if you need to connect= because you are not alone. Even if you are the only one in your department (I luckily have one more to share the burden), there are likely others in your institution that may be feeling the same. Email them, roll up on them, find a way to connect. It is important. Don’t let being the unicorn hold you back! Let’s find each other. I am here if you guys need me.

In short, being a black woman in medicine is hard, daunting at times, powerful, funny, but most of all amazing! It’s a rocky rollercoaster, but worth the ride in the end. My opinion, but I am sticking with it. 

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