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Addressing racial disparities in the medical field

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Posted at 1:10 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 15:10:05-04

Finding a Black medical provider who is in a patient’s insurance network, works nearby and accepts new patients can be difficult.

Only 3% of active physicians are Black women. 

Dr. Monique Smith practices in Atlanta. Dr. Ijeoma Opara practices in Detroit. In their cities, they wrestle with a problem playing out in nearly every city and town in America. They are not represented in their profession. 

“I didn't know what it meant to be a doctor. I didn't know what the path looked like. I didn't know what education was like. Those are all things that I had to learn,” Smith said.

 Black Americans make up more than 13% of the population, but just five percent of physicians.

“When you look and see that women are three to four times more likely if they're Black to die of childbirth complications. When you think about the fact that diabetes and hypertension are not only two or three times more likely to be diagnosed in Black communities, we’re also two to three times more likely to die of those conditions, you've got to wonder where that's coming from.” Smith said.

“We are in a great society, but not for everyone, right? We know that when Black people and Black women specifically are the doctors of in the cases that involve Black patients, Black patients live, and they do better," Opara said.

A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that when a doctor and patient had the same race/ethnicity and gender, the patient had a more positive experience. 

Yet no matter the city, black Americans – specifically black women – haven’t had a seat in how those experiences get shaped. 

“When you think about where medicine starts from our reference point, it's the idea of a 154-pound white man. That's how we automatically judge. That's how we've been ruled for clinical trials. That's how we built the whole canon that we're teaching the next generation and all the generations before about how to practice medicine,” Smith said.

A century ago, barely any Black female doctors existed. Today, there are more Black female doctors than Black male doctors. But that’s just about the only gap that’s been closed. In the room, voices still struggle to shine. 

Smith said it's really tough, particularly in this day and age, to be in the medical setting and to see some of the atrocities that happen to people of color and not just Black people, but across the spectrum.

“And to be someone that speaks up and when you speak up to also be dismissed," she said. "So not only are patients dismissed but sometimes some of our learners are dismissed.” 

Opara is hopeful for change.

“There is opportunity to reverse," she said. "There is opportunity to make a change.” 

Opara and Smith have been vocal about creating change from the inside, but they've also been vocal about outreach to the outside. 

Smith helped start Culture Care, which connects Black women to doctors of a similar background. Other sites list directories of doctors across the country.

“This country is going to have a shortage of doctors and we certainly have a disproportionate number of physicians when you look across demographics. So, we've got to figure out a way to make space," Smith said.