U of M med students fighting injustice report battle fatigue

Photo by Louie Tran

University of Minnesota medical students are continuing their yearlong fight to improve education and curriculum standards regarding health disparities and racism in medicine—but they are getting tired of it.

Through years of slow collaboration with administrators and mostly ambivalent peers, several U of M medical student groups have repeatedly shown up both in and out of the classroom for important issues affecting communities of color. 

However, following glacial efforts from the university and a summer spent reckoning with the police killing of George Floyd, these students are exhausted, frustrated, and worried about their futures as physicians of color in a pandemic-stricken world.

Who’s fighting for whom?

Dominique Earland is a second-year medical student and president of the U of M’s chapter of White Coats for Black Lives (WCBL), a group that has been dedicated to combating racism and implicit bias in medicine since 2014. She said that despite various efforts to approach administrators and make change happen at the school, she and other students are getting weary.

“There’s a multi-faceted exhaustion that comes with all of this,” said second-year medical student and WCBL member Reme Abulu. “[As a Black medical student] it can be really overwhelming to look and see that you’re up against this huge mountain.

“You just have to keep pushing and trying to keep advocating and keep making people aware. But there’s so many things that people need to be made aware of,” said Abulu.

WCBL is just one of several medical student groups at the U of M focused on bringing equity and social justice to the forefront of medicine. The group has consistently said that, as one of the largest producers of physicians in a state with some of the worst health inequities in the country, the University of Minnesota has an obligation to take these issues more seriously and equip its students with the tools to tackle these issues head-on in the field.

The group usually takes advantage of Health Equity Week, a global event centered on education and action items in dealing with disparities in public health. In the past, they have held lunch lectures and evening workshops to address a disconnect between race-related issues, health education, and a lack of practitioner diversity within the field.

Last summer, these students came out to act as field medics during the protests in Minneapolis demanding prosecution of the police who killed George Floyd. They also organized several protests of their own and gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions demanding more from U of M policymakers.

Along with other medical school student groups, they protested the initial George Floyd autopsy report from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, as well as the defacing of Floyd’s memorial by former fourth-year medical student Daniel Michelson.

Group members said they remember the work they did before Floyd’s killing and the pandemic as being stressful and hard in its own way. Now, with the added weight of working to become a Black physician in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts direct health care workers of color, Earland said it often seems like BIPOC students are left in the dust when trying to cope with this new reality.

“I think it’s really scary,” Earland said. “There aren’t really forums to talk about it. I don’t think I have the skills to really address it. And when you look at the mental health of especially Black women in medicine, it’s clearly taking a toll.”

Where from here

While these groups often have White members and White allies in their peer group, it is clear that Black and Brown students—especially women—are leading the way in these advocacy efforts at the U of M Medical School. While these students have said they have no intention to stop anytime soon, they don’t deny that the work is wearing on them.

“I think what makes it even worse as a Black female medical student is that I’m doing all of this for no recognition, during a pandemic, and during a time where Black people are still being shot down by the police,” Earland said. “To think that the least [administrators] could do is listen to some of the recommendations…makes them seems a bit ridiculous.”

Earland, Abulu, and many other medical students have begun working with other local and national chapters of medical student associations to determine advocacy options and pool resources. Recently, they formed a local “Med Ed” coalition to support work done with administration.

“I think a lot of minor changes have been made so far,” said second-year medical student and Student National Medical Association member Tim Nyangacha. “My main frustration is that we are hoping for more substantial change and more immediate change, and I think our administration may be slower in accepting these changes… I think we have been burdened with a lot of the work, especially early on.”

According to these students, there have been some promising efforts on behalf of the U of M. For example, several students said they looked forward to working with Dr. Ana Núñez, the medical school’s new vice dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, who they said seems sincere in her outreach so far.

However, most of the students said they will remain skeptical until real change has been made. “Yeah, we can complain on a feedback card, but physicians who don’t care are still going to practice medicine,” Earland said.

“[Administration and other medical students] can easily ignore us. They can and do just ignore the feedback cards. They can just not go to the optional lectures. We are making progress, but we’re still in a period of learning I guess.”

Jasmine Snow welcomes reader responses to jsnow@spokesman-recorder.com.