December 1 was World AIDS Day, an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic caused by the spread of the HIV infection. World AIDS Day was first observed in 1988, when organizations and individuals across the world came together to speak out against the stigma around HIV. Recently, it has also become a fundraising opportunity to support more than 38 million people living with HIV.
The theme of World AIDS Day 2021 was “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice” to help address the lack of equitable access to HIV prevention and treatment in the U.S. Black people in particular are disproportionately affected by HIV, accounting for 42% of the new diagnoses in the U.S. Even worse, many are unaware they’re HIV positive and hesitant to get treatment due to both stigma and racism present in medicine.
This raises an even bigger issue — Black people only make up 4% of U.S. doctors and less than 7% of U.S. medical students, while representing nearly 14% of the population. In 2020, a Bridge Clinical Research study found that Black patients were much more likely to select every preventive service offered at an appointment, particularly invasive services, after meeting with a Black doctor. An increase in Black doctors could help decrease rates and severity of an HIV infection, but there are many systemic barriers present, including financial constraints, lack of role models and racism in the field.
Robert F. Smith’s Work to Combat Racial Inequities in Medicine
Robert F. Smith is working to combat these inequities through his efforts to provide Black students with paid internship opportunities with internX via the Fund II Foundation. He also has long supported organizations like the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which offer cancer treatment and prevention research and patient support.
Under Smith’s leadership as founding director and President, Fund II Foundation launched internX in 2019, a program that matches minority college students with internship opportunities at the top STEM-related companies in the U.S. In addition to internships, the program also provides payment, housing and mentorships with other people of color in the STEM field. To date, internX has matched more than 12,000 STEM students with internships to help grow their professional networks before graduating.
As a philanthropist and racial justice advocate, Smith is also passionate about supporting research organizations who focus on diseases that disproportionately affect Black people. In 2016, Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is founding director and President, made a $27 million grant to Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation toward their ambitious African American Health Equity Initiative.
“The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said that the biggest injustice one can find is really in healthcare.” Smith said at the initiative’s launch. “The Fund II Foundation is focused on — among a number of pillars — helping to decrease that disparity and level the playing field in health care and treatment for African-American women.”
Additionally, Smith partnered with the Prostate Cancer Foundation in 2020 to create the Smith Polygenic Risk Test for Prostate Cancer, a non-invasive, early detection test that will identify a man’s lifetime prostate cancer risk using a combination of more than 250 genetic variants obtained from a single sample of saliva or blood. The test is named after Smith himself, and he personally donated $1.9 million toward its development. Smith also supported PCF and their research with a 2018 donation of $2.5 million to establish the Robert Frederick Smith Precision Oncology Center of Excellence in Chicago, located at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.
Learn more about Smith’s efforts to increase diverse representation in the STEM field.