The need for Black doctors in the U.S. has been longstanding, as has been their scarcity. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), this country needs at least 96,000 more doctors immediately to meet everyone’s health care needs.
However, the AAMC and other experts say Black enrollment in U.S. medical schools has remained virtually unchanged since the 1970s. Black males in 1978-79 made up 3% of medical students; that number is now 2.9 percent. Black female enrollment, 2.2 percent in 1978-79, has doubled to 4.4 percent in 2019-20.
A 2015 AAMC report surmised that bias and stereotyping rank high among the most common challenges for Blacks going into the medical fields, especially among males. It also pointed out that low numbers of Black males in STEM and AP courses, and an average student loan debt of $200,000, are contributing factors.
A Feb. 24 African American Leadership Forum panel discussion addressed the need for more Black doctors and considered possible reasons for the low numbers.
Dr. Calvin Mackie, who founded STEM NOLA in New Orleans in 2014 to expose young Blacks to medicine, science and engineering, boldly declared that perhaps the Black community is partly to blame for the low numbers of Blacks in such fields. He added that too much emphasis for Blacks, especially Black males, is on playing sports rather than pursuing other professions.
“We wouldn’t have this conversation if we were talking about Black men in University of Minnesota football or any other institution of higher education,” he continued. “They value the Black body running up and down those courts, but they don’t value the Black mind.”
“There were only three Black males before I got there out of 160-170 [students],” recalled Dr. Simon Ndely, a 2018 University of Minnesota Medical School graduate now doing his residency at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Andrew Kiragu is the only fulltime Black physician at Children Minnesota’s pediatric critical care unit. “It does feel lonely,” he noted. When he did his residency at the U of M (1994-98), “I remember being the only Black person in the ICU. All the patients were White. All the nurses were White. All the other doctors were White.”
“Fortunately, 20 years down the road things have changed a little bit,” said Kiragu. “But I am still a little lonely.” He called the challenge of getting more Blacks to choose medicine “this monster of low expectations.
“Unfortunately, somewhere along the way for young Black boys these dreams slowly fade away. Part of this is the lower expectations presented to them, and a lack of role models,” said Kiragu.
Pursing a medical career is not easy but is achievable, stated Dr. David Hamlar, a University of Minnesota Medical School assistant professor. “People need to know what hard work is. The amount of time young men spend in doing that, they are going to be an ace in whatever field they go into.”
Hamlar also noted the low visibility of Black doctors in the community: “Most…are out in the suburbs. I’m out in a different hospital, and unless a Black person comes in to see me, I am not in my community. We need to get back to our community.”
He is on the staff at NorthPoint Health and Wellness located in North Minneapolis. “People can go to that clinic and see Black faces,” said Hamlar, who specializes in face and skull surgery. “We are not going to solve this problem immediately.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.