By Dr. Chidinma Chima-Melton
“Oh! You are a doctor? Good for you!”
This is the usual response when I walk into a hospital room and introduce myself to patients. I try to accept this as praise and yet a part of me understands the sad state of affairs that makes my presence a rarity. As an African American female physician, I represent a minority of a minority—only 5% of US physicians are African American and, worse still, only 2% of US physicians are African American women. It is no wonder that a significant number of patients I meet view me as noteworthy—I do not gel with their perception of what a physician looks like.
It is not just patients that struggle with this cognitive dissonance. I see this play out with doctors. The issue is that when this occurs in the professional environment, at best, it manifests as acts of microaggression— such as those who are puzzled by my presence in the physician’s lounge, sometimes going far enough as to police me by demanding to see my staff ID.
While racial prejudice within medicine has come a long way since Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s time (she was the first African American woman in the United States to earn an MD degree), there is still room for improvement. Adequate representation of people of color in medicine is not just a nice-to-have—it is a necessity. Time and time again, I come across patients that thank me profusely for explaining concepts to them that other doctors have tried and failed to explain, thus bringing about positive behavioral change. While I would love to attribute this success to my brilliant command of the spoken word, there is much more to it than that!
A recent study PDF from Oakland, CA, showed that black men seen by black doctors are more likely to utilize preventive services than those seen by non-black doctors. This effect seemed to be driven by better patient-doctor communication and more trust.
Early in my career, I had mentors that supported me in pursuing my professional goals. These mentors often did not look like me, but I found that their encouragement worked wonders— making me feel like I am the norm and normalizing my experience. This acceptance is something I strive to pass on to the men and women I mentor.
This Black History Month, as I look back at how far our profession has come since Dr. Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College in 1864, I imagine a future in which with ongoing recruitment, mentorship, and retention of physicians of color, the appearance of a black female physician will no longer be a noteworthy event. By increasing the representation of African Americans in medicine, we change perceptions of what a doctor is supposed to look like. So when a black physician volunteers her help on flight, her credentials are not questioned. That day would indeed be good for us all!