Despite increased calls for racial diversity across business, academia, law and politics, diversity in the medical field lags behind. The proportion of the medical workforce of color — and particularly African American men’s enrollment in medical school — has not improved in the past 20 years. In fact, there has been a slight decrease.
Although Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they represent only 5% of physicians. “It’s been a persistent, stubborn racial disparity in the medical workforce,” said Dr. Vanessa Gamble, a professor at George Washington University. “Medical schools have tried, but it also has to do with societal issues about what happens to a lot of kids in our country these days.”
The High Cost of Medical School for Black Students
Progress is often mired by the high cost of medical school, with student loans averaging at around $200,000 to obtain an M.D. Student loans also disproportionately impact African American students. In fact, 86.6% of African American students take out federal loans and graduate with $7,400 more in student debt than their white peers. “With black students reporting higher debt burdens than their counterparts from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, it is plausible that this disproportionate debt burden may play a role in the relative decline in medical school attendance among Black students,” said Sandro Galea, in a research report for Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Mending this gap is critical to overcome decades of institutional racism within the U.S. medical system.
Why is it important to get more Black students to become doctors? Some of the problem is a matter of visibility in the field. Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any major demographic group in the U.S. Moreover, experts say that more doctors of color can help the Black community overcome this historical mistrust of the medical system, which leads to worse health outcomes in some communities. In an example in Oakland, Calif., researchers matched Black men to Black or non-Black male medical doctors, finding that Black doctors could reduce the lack-white male gap in cardiovascular mortality by 19%.
Robert F. Smith’s Work to Mend the Racial Health Gap
Robert F. Smith has devoted philanthropic support to help solve this disparity by both improving health outcomes for Black communities and helping eliminate the high cost of tuition loans for students of color.
As previously mentioned, medical school’s rising costs and the associated debt can be a massive difficulty for aspiring Black doctors. Smith has acted through his philanthropic work to reduce student debt, particularly at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the U.S. In September 2019, Smith memorably paid off the student loan debt for the nearly 400 graduates of Morehouse College. He then founded Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit set to launch in fall 2021 that aims to provide loan alternatives as well as career support for HBCU students through paid internships, mentoring and more.
Smith also is helping address the unequal health outcomes for communities of color. As a champion of health equity, Smith donated $1.9 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) in July 2020, toward the development of a test that will identify a man’s likelihood of developing prostate cancer over a lifetime. Black men are diagnosed with and die from prostate cancer at a higher rate than other groups. The Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is founding director and President, provided a grant to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in September 2016 to enhance breast cancer screening and treatments for Black women over three to five years. The effort targets 10 cities with high breast cancer mortality rates across the U.S., aiming to halve the nation’s breast cancer deaths over a decade. “No longer should African-American women be more likely to die from a breast cancer diagnosis than others,” Smith said.
These dual efforts aim to target important health disparities. Still, more must be done to improve Black representation in medical institutions across the U.S. and diversifying the medical field at large.
Learn more about Smith’s efforts to reduce inequality in prostate cancer diagnoses and outcomes and the potential impact of more Black physicians.