Fighting to increase Black doctors

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While the number of diseases disproportionately affecting African-Americans continues to increase, the number of African-Americans providing treatment for them is far lower compared to their White counterparts.

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PROMOTED—7th grade Journey to Medicine program participants show off their new scrubs as a display of their promotion to the next level of the program at their promotion ceremony, Dec. 17 at the Allegheny County Medical Society in the North Side. (Photo by Gail Manker)

In an effort to address the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in the medical profession, Gateway Medical Society, which is comprised of African-American physicians from the southwestern Pennsylvania region, is giving young people experience and an in-depth look into the various medical professions.

“We need African-American doctors just like we need African-American lawyers, business owners, researchers, nurses, MBAs, etc,” said Dr. William Simmons, president elect of GMS and anesthesiologist at Shadyside Hospital. “We need African-American doctors because they are most likely to work in minority and socioeconomically challenged communities where these disparities can be addressed.”

While the representation of African-Americans in the medical profession is low compared to its counterparts, it’s even lower among African-American males. Through its Journey to Medicine initiative, GMS, a Pittsburgh affiliate of the National Medical Association, is introducing African-American males to the medical field at an early age in an effort to educate and mentor them in medicine and help guide and inspire them through their secondary and in most cases, their post-secondary educations.

Simmons said that the Journey to Medicine program is primarily focused on African-American males because, “we are looking at dyer statistics. If you look at a lot of college classes, African-American females are the vast majority of the African-Americans in the classes.” He added that in a city the size of Pittsburgh, where there is a large number of African-American residents, the percentage of African-American physicians should reflect that.

The Journey to Medicine program, created in 2009, starts with up to 15 6th grade boys and as they get older and move up in grades, increases their level and phases within the program. Throughout the program, students participate in tours of medical facilities, field trip, tutoring sessions, presentations and mentoring by physicians and simulations at the West Penn Hospital STAR (Simulation, Teaching and Academic Research) Center, which offers simulations of real-life situations and offers guided hands-on learning opportunities. Currently there are four phases, but in 2012 GMS plans to add two more phases to their program, which will offer an extensive mentorship in math and science, which are the courses Williams stresses are important for the medical field. Each quarter, students with success in their studies receive rewards for their efforts. Last Saturday, GMS promoted another set of students from their Journey to Medicine program.

Dr. Jan Madison, chairperson for fundraising of GMS and a pulmonary critical care physician with Pittsburgh Pulmonary Associates, said that diversity in health care is important and by starting young the hope is that they can get the males through high school and help them to gain a competitive edge on their counterparts when they enter college. Also, when they become doctors, they will join GMS and “that they’ll always reach back to the other students like our doctors do,” she said.

Madison said that recruiting more African-Americans into the medical field is important because health disparities among African-Americans are huge and that patients are more likely to trust and open up to doctors who are like them, because patients want someone who understands them and what they’re going through.

She said that African-Americans make up approximately 6 percent of the physician workforce in Pittsburgh. According to the US Census Bureau website, in 2010 African-Americans accounted for approximately 26 percent of the city of Pittsburgh’s population.

“While recruiting is stage one, retention (keeping them in the region) is the next step and the hardest, so we (GMS) try to reach out to them and show them support,” Madison said.

Also, by capturing their interests when they’re young, Simmons says students who grow up in Pittsburgh and go away to train, are more likely to come back close to their family and add to the region’s medical workforce.

“It would be a tragedy to lose another generation. If we sit by and do not help to redirect the education of young African-American males and females we’re going to lose very bright minds,” he said. “I can’t be here forever. I want to have a pipeline of people behind me, so that they can take my place to support the African-American community.”

(For more information on Gateway Medical Society’s Journey to Medicine program, call 412-281-4086.)

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