How California can add black doctors to the health system

in summary

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.

Guest Comment written by

Wynton Sims

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

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

I was on an OB/GYN rotation during my clinical year at UCSF School of Medicine and I did what any other health care provider would do. I tried to make the patient 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 was leaving the clinic the other day in my white coat, a black woman from the office ran after me to convey 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 have been rare in California, making up about 3 percent of the state’s total doctors for decades.

What has become clearer with each passing year, however, is the cost of this lack of representation. A recent survey by the California Health Care Foundation found that 1 in 3 blacks 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 at all because they thought they would be neglected.

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

Black Californians also agree on an obvious way to make the health care system work better: 80 percent 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 men has remained roughly the same since 1940. The question remains, how do we change these dire 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 health professionals in Mississippi. I chose UCSF because I wanted to study at a school committed to cultivating a diverse student body and retaining and supporting Black students.

However, it took six months of clinical rotations before I worked under a black doctor. It was the first time I experienced that basic feeling of building a professional relationship with someone who looks like me, who cares about what I hope 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 fosters the real connections and real exchange of information that are at the heart of healthcare. This is something any good doctor can do.

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

The Urban Institute released a report this year outlining some of the most successful policies for establishing a diverse health care workforce—from training programs and holistic admissions to diversity initiatives and reducing the financial burden of higher education.

For me, it comes down to money and mentorship, which are two of the biggest barriers for black students hoping to start and finish medical school. Financial and academic support should start early—as early as elementary school—and continue through high school, college, and even the medical school application process, which itself is a significant expense.

Mentoring programs are just as important to close what feels like an endless cycle: We all want more black doctors to inspire and guide us, but it’s hard because there are unfortunately so few of them.

Still, more of us are coming, and we will do everything we can to provide the care that black Californians deserve.

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