Now more than ever, it is critical to support diversity in medicine programs (Commentary)



In the U.S., only 2 percent of physicians are Black women. As a medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University, I am working to become one and change that statistic.

Born and raised in Syracuse, I have wanted to become a doctor from a very young age. But it was later as a teen that I found my passion for addressing health equity. I was volunteering at a federally qualified health care center in a medically underserved area of Syracuse and I began to understand the health care disparities that affected my community members.

Health disparities among historically marginalized communities are well documented, and COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on them, with increased hospitalizations and death rates among Black and Latinx patients. And while health disparities are complex, there is one relatively simple way to begin mitigating them—increase the number of doctors from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.

Increasing diversity among doctors is an important tool to address disparities because patients are more likely to visit and follow the instructions of doctors with whom they share an ethnic or racial background. I saw this firsthand at health clinics while volunteering. Doctors who shared a background with their patients were able to better understand and alleviate medical mistrust, such as the vaccine hesitancy we’re witnessing today.

The evidence is not just anecdotal— a 2018 study from Stanford found that Black men who were randomly placed to be seen by Black doctors (rather than non-Black doctors) for a free health care screening sought continued preventative care following that visit. Another recent study found the mortality rate for Black babies is cut dramatically when Black doctors care for them after birth. Despite the potential for improved outcomes, there are too few Black doctors to treat patients.

Here in New York State, 34% of our population is Black or Hispanic, yet only 13% of our practicing doctors represent those communities. Our diverse population needs more diverse doctors, however, students from underrepresented backgrounds often face barriers on our journeys to medical school.

Unlike many of our peers in medical school, we often don’t have family or friends who are doctors and could help us navigate our educational path. My mother worked hard to support three kids while widowed. She prioritized our education, but she was not in a position to help us navigate admissions processes. Counseling offices try to dissuade us from applying if our grades are borderline or our standardized test scores aren’t quite high enough, and we often don’t have access to other supports.

Students from underrepresented backgrounds are also more likely to face financial barriers and to have to work during college, which impacts grades and test scores. I worked three jobs at one point to pay my way through college and would leave exams knowing I could have done better if I didn’t have to work a 12-hour shift the day before.

Luckily, here in New York, we have programs designed to give students like me opportunities. After applying to medical school, I received conditional acceptance to Upstate, provided I successfully completed a post-baccalaureate program offered by the Associated Medical Schools of New York (AMSNY) and funded by the NYS Department of Health. It was an incredibly empowering educational experience. For the first time, I was surrounded by aspiring doctors who looked like me and had backgrounds like mine. And, I was also able to focus on school full time, without worrying about finances.

After completing AMSNY’s post-baccalaureate program, I had the opportunity to apply for their Diversity in Medicine scholarship—designed to address financial barriers for students from underrepresented backgrounds—which I am proud to have received for two years in a row.

Thanks to the Diversity in Medicine program and scholarship, I am thriving in medical school, studying for my board exams while acting as an advocate on campus, organizing conversations around racial equity in health care.

Unfortunately, AMSNY’s incredibly effective programs are at risk of being cut because of the Covid-19 budget shortfalls. This comes at a time when Covid-19 has shown the world why we need to immediately address health disparities. Without AMSNY’s Diversity in Medicine programs and scholarships, there will be fewer students like me— with the lived experiences and a passion to address these disparities head-on—who make it to medical school.

In order to go where I am needed most and make a difference, I’ve committed to practicing in a medically underserved area of New York state when I’m done with my training. I am asking Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to commit to underserved communities, too, by diversifying New York State’s doctors and making a difference in the health of New Yorkers.