Black Men Aren't Pursuing Careers As Physicians: 'They Don't See Themselves As Doctors'

Jul 1, 2019

The late Dr. Allen L. Herron set the pace for black physicians in Milwaukee, especially black men. He’s believed to be the first African American male doctor to practice here.

Herron wasn’t a native of Milwaukee but came here in 1900. He practiced until he died at the age of 93 in 1956.

In the decades since, black men have followed in his footsteps. But the number of African American physicians isn’t as high as you might expect.

For this week’s Beats Me question, one of our listeners wanted to know why.

Beats Me: What Questions Do You Have For WUWM's Beat Reporters?

Dr. Norma Poll-Hunter was the project lead when the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C. studied the issue five years ago. The study looks at things like how many black men applied to medical schools, and how many were accepted.

"In terms of matriculation — those that actually entered — in 1978 there were 542 black male matriculants to our MD granting institutions, and then the number in 2014 was less. It was only 515," she says.

Poll-Hunter says the decline was disturbing.

"If we think about the history of the United States — you know, civil rights and access to education — we anticipated that there would be increases over time, considering progress that has been made for African American communities in particular in the United States. And to see this … it was very concerning," she says.

"They see themselves as basketball players. They see themselves as football players. They don't see themselves being doctors." - Dr. Kevin Izard

Now, it's important to note that the numbers have gone up since 2014. Numbers from last year show a 4.4% increase in black male applicants, and a 7.3% increase in black men enrolled in medical schools.  

But the number of black men pursuing careers as physicians remains low, compared to other groups. And there are a variety of factors that contribute to the numbers.

According to the AAMC report, black men deal with stereotypes, racism or prejudice in school from when they are young through their college years. In addition, they have fewer financial resources and a lack of knowledge about what it takes to apply to and get through medical school. And black boys and young men don’t grow up with African American physicians as role models.

Dr. Kevin Izard is a family physician and the president of the Cream City Medical Society, a Milwaukee chapter of the National Medical Association.
Credit Teran Powell

Dr. Kevin Izard is a family physician and the president of the Cream City Medical Society. It’s a Milwaukee organization that seeks to eliminate minority health disparities. It's the local chapter of the National Medical Association.

"I talked to a group of kids earlier in the year, a group of third graders, and one of the third graders told me, 'Well, black people can’t be doctors,' and I said, 'Well, look at me,' " Izard says. "They see themselves as basketball players. They see themselves as football players. They don't see themselves being doctors."

The good news is pipeline programs in medical schools are trying to increase the number of black men, and those from other underrepresented groups, who apply to and complete medical school.

Dr. Malika Siker.
Credit Teran Powell

Dr. Malika Siker is the associate dean for student diversity and inclusion at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She says it has pipeline programs that have been in place for decades. One program is Apprenticeship in Medicine, which is geared toward high school students.

"The goal is to bring in high school students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine and expose them to experiences in the medical professions," Siker explains. "So, these students have the opportunity to participate in medical education lectures, hands-on projects, and they also get to do shadowing in clinics with clinicians."

The Research Opportunity for Academic Development in Science is another program for high school students. The Diversity Summer Health-Related Research Education program is available for undergraduate students.

Diwante Shuford is a second-year student at the medical college. He grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and thinks the pipeline programs are some of the best resources.

"That’s an amazing opportunity. I wish I would’ve had that when I was in high school. I feel like those are the things that we need to bring about the exposure," he says.

Diwante Shuford, a second-year student at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Credit Teran Powell

Shuford’s goal is to become an emergency medical physician.

He says while he had a network of support around him, and the drive to pursue a career in medicine, not all young people do.

He thinks it’s essential for black men to become physicians, especially when it comes to preventative care for other black men.

African American males reportedly have the lowest life expectancy of any major demographic group. And seeing a doctor that looks like them could encourage them to keep coming back.

Plus, physicians of color are more likely to treat minority patients and practice in underserved communities. Just something to think about before you make your next appointment.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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