Tackling the Education Gap: Encouraging Medical Careers Among Black Students
Black and African American doctors make up 5% of all active physicians in the country – a mere 45,534 healthcare professionals. With the African American population at about 46.9 million, it is clear why Black communities are underserved. What’s even more worrying is that Black men are increasingly less likely to take up medical courses and hold careers as physicians in the U.S.
While U.S. medical schools have certainly put in the effort to enroll more Black students, it is true to say that more work needs to be done to end healthcare disparities. Studies show that the gap in medical schools is far from closing. Over the past four decades, the proportion of African American enrollees in comparison with the total number of matriculants admitted to medical schools decreased significantly. This is a testament to the widening education gap and the distant goal that is diversity in the healthcare workforce.
Barriers to Closing the Education Gap in Medical Schools
Why is the U.S. falling short when it comes to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce? And why is this crisis especially acute with respect to Black and African Americans in medical education and practice? This puzzle can only be solved by acknowledging the barriers that are in the way of closing the education gap in medical schools.
Reduced Access to Quality Education
The number of young black students in underperforming K-12 public schools is disproportionately high, and this is one of the negative influences on the pipeline to medical school. Going by the recent trends, African Americans continue to experience separate and unequal educational opportunities. As such, the majority of Black students will likely attend low-performing, under-resourced schools.
The majority of schools that Black and African American students attend are inadequately resourced to support STEM and pre-medical studies. This education gap is further exacerbated by a shortage of Black teachers or those with cultural awareness to recognize the barriers to the career aspirations of Black students. Further, such teachers may not fully embrace the strategies to counter the cultural and social barriers to successfully pursuing careers in medicine.
High Cost of Higher Education
Structural barriers of low incomes and poverty levels in African American communities affect academic preparation for medical school. Most African American households can only afford to take their kids to public schools. While more black students are now qualifying to join colleges and universities, the cost of enrolling in Ivy League schools becomes an impediment to pursuing medical careers.
Still, such students find their way into community colleges, which are potent pathways to overcome the barriers to academic preparation for medical schools. However, attendance at community colleges is hugely undervalued in the admissions process in medical school.
Public Images and Perceptions of Black People
A common challenge that extends to medical schools and healthcare in the U.S. is the bias and stereotyping of Black people. Society doesn’t perceive Black people to be doctors. Further, it doesn’t help the situation when the media perpetuates the problematic claim that there are more Black people in prison than in college. Such stereotyping has been found to negatively influence educational and career progress as well as outcomes among Black people, making it less likely for them to pursue a career in medicine.
Promising Interventions for Closing the Education Gap
Tackling the education gap and encouraging more Black students to take up medical courses takes the joint effort of governments, medical schools, and community members. Most importantly, early school interventions can have a positive influence on the admission and completion of medical studies among Black students.
More successful Black doctors need to be at the fore in showing African American students that succeeding in medical school and carving a career in the medical field is possible. There have been bright spots in higher education – groups such as the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB), based in Ohio, have been in the fore to ensure that Black and African American students have the necessary guidance, support, mentoring, and tutoring to be successful graduates.
While they are not solely focused on bringing more Black and African American students to STEM, such mentorship groups have been credited with assisting students to stay in medical school and graduate. For instance, the establishment of SAAB at the University of Louisville saw the graduation rate for undergraduate African-American students go up from 27.4% in 2005 to 36.6% in 2009. Since the inception of the program, every Black student who joined has either stayed in school or completed studies and graduated.
The absence of Black physician role models has also been problematic in closing the gap and fighting the disparity in healthcare. Like the disproportionate of Black practicing physicians in the U.S., there is a notable deficit in African Americans among faculty and leaders in academic medicine. Having African American Role models, instructors, and teachers with whom Black students can identify with could be an essential factor for success.
Historically, Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been offering African American students a conducive space and the necessary support throughout their education. However, there’s still much to be done in creating a clear pathway into medical school. HBCUs can also tailor programs and social support to ensure that Black students succeed and make the next step of practicing.
Pipeline programs can also help address systemic barriers of diversity in medical schools. Various universities in the country have pipeline programs that may include offering a Bridge program in biomedical sciences while others offer partial loan repayment for physicians practicing in Health Professional Shortage Areas.
The high financial cost of college and medical school is often a deterrent to African American students pursuing medical careers. With many Black students lacking the financial resources and access to information about scholarships and funding programs, this is certainly one of the areas that deserve a closer look.
College students need an all-inclusive support menu, including MCAT preparation and application support, tuition assistance, and other forms of financial support to succeed in their education. Strategic investments could also play a passive role in providing financial support to medical students. Schools should also invest in training educators on implicit bias to create an inclusive environment within institutions.
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Tackling the Education Gap: Encouraging Medical Careers Among Black Students
Black and African American doctors make up 5% of all active physicians in the country – a mere 45,534 healthcare professionals. With the African American population at about 46.9 million, it is clear why Black communities are underserved.
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