How California can add black doctors to the health care system

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Many black Californians say they have been treated unfairly or felt disrespected by a health care provider because of their race or ethnicity. A recent study found that increasing the number of black doctors is the best solution.

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Wynton Sims

Wynton Sims is a medical student at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.

I still remember one of the first times I helped treat a black patient.

During my clinical year at UCSF Medical School, I was on an OB-GYN rotation doing what any other health care provider would do. I tried to make the patient feel comfortable. I asked her questions and listened carefully to her answers. It felt like a normal conversation where I was trying to gather information and give health advice in equal measure.

But as I left the clinic that day in a white coat, a black woman from the doctor’s office ran up to me to tell me how proud she was—and how important it was to her to see someone like me learning how to become a doctor.

It should come as no surprise that black Californians want more black providers in our health care system. Black doctors were very few in California and for decades made up about 3% of the total number of doctors in the state.

What is becoming clearer with each passing year, however, is the cost of this lack of representation. A recent study by the California Health Care Foundation found that 1 in 3 black men in California say they have been treated unfairly by a health care provider. because of their race or ethnicity. One in four black Californians avoided seeking care altogether because they felt disrespected.

Black patients have the same basic expectations of the health care system as everyone else, a foundation survey found. They want providers who listen to them (98%), spend time answering their questions (97%), and discuss and customize their health goals (93%).

Black Californians also agree on an obvious way to improve the health care system: 80% say it’s important to increase the number of black doctors, nurses and other health care providers.

But as the old saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

A UCLA study last year found that the national share of doctors who are black has remained essentially the same since 1940. The question remains, how do we change these abysmal numbers?

As a black student at one of California’s most selective medical schools, I am the exception that proves the rule. Both of my parents were paramedics in Mississippi. I chose UCSF because I wanted to study at a school that was committed to cultivating a diverse student body and retaining and supporting black students.

Still, it took six months of clinical rotations before I worked under a black doctor. That was the first time I experienced that essential feeling of building a professional relationship with someone who looks like me, who cares about what I want to achieve, and who is deeply invested in my success.

As I continue to work in clinics and learn my craft, I think every student, patient, and provider is looking for an opportunity to see and be seen. It supports the real connection and real exchange of information that is at the heart of healthcare. It’s something any good doctor can do.

To do this well, especially for black patients, we need more black doctors.

The Urban Institute released a report this year that outlines some of the most successful policies for creating a diverse health care workforce—from pathways and holistic recruiting programs to diversity initiatives and reducing the financial burden of higher education.

In my opinion, money and mentorship are the two biggest obstacles for black students hoping to start and finish medical school. Financial and academic support must start early—as early as elementary school—and continue through high school, college, and even the medical school application process, which in itself is a significant expense.

Mentoring programs are equally important to closing what seems like a never-ending loop: We all want more black doctors to inspire and guide us, but it’s hard because there are sadly so few of them.

But more of us are coming and we will strive to provide the care that black Californians deserve.

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