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 medical professional would do. I tried to put the patient at ease. I asked him questions and listened carefully to his answers. It felt like a normal conversation where I was trying to gather information and provide health advice in equal measure.
But as I was leaving the clinic that day, wearing my white coat, a black woman from the office ran after me to tell me how proud she was – and how important it was for her to see someone. one like me learning to become a doctor.
It’s no surprise that black Californians wish there were more black providers in our healthcare system. Black doctors are rare in California, accounting for about 3% of the state’s total number of doctors for decades.
What becomes clearer with each passing year, however, is the cost of this lack of representation. A recent California Health Care Foundation study found that one in three black people in California report being treated unfairly by a health care provider because of their race or ethnicity. One in four black Californians avoided seeking care because they thought they would be disrespected.
Black patients have the same basic expectations of the healthcare system as everyone else, according to the foundation’s survey. They want providers who listen to them (98%), spend time answering their questions (97%), discuss and personalize their health goals (93%).
Black Californians also agree on a clear way to make the healthcare system work better: 80% say it’s important to increase the number of black doctors, nurses and other healthcare 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 physicians who are black males has remained basically the same since 1940. The question remains, how do you change these abysmal 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 medical 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.
Nevertheless, it still took me six months of clinical rotations before working with a black doctor. It was the first time that I experienced this essential feeling of building a professional relationship with someone who looks like me, who is interested in what I hope to accomplish and who is deeply invested in my success.
As I continue to work in clinics and learn my craft, I believe every student, patient, and provider seeks the opportunity to see and be seen. It fosters authentic connections and genuine exchanges of information that are at the heart of healthcare. This is something any good doctor can do.
To do this well, especially for black patients, we need more black doctors.
The Urban Institute released a report this year outlining some of the most effective policies for building a diverse healthcare workforce — from holistic pathways and admissions programs to diversity initiatives and reducing financial burden of higher education.
For me, it comes down to money and mentorship, which are two of the biggest obstacles for black students hoping to start and complete medical school. Financial and academic support must start early – as early as grade school – and continue through high school, college, and even the medical school application process, which in itself is a significant expense.
Mentorship programs are equally important in closing what seems like an endless loop: we all want more black doctors, to inspire and guide us, but it’s hard because there are unfortunately so few of them.
However, more of us are coming and we will do our best to provide the care that Black Californians deserve.
Wynton Sims is a medical student at UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
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