Rock star was never Olawale Amubieya’s career goal. Nevertheless, a recent video about him has gotten thousands of views in just a few weeks and fans are seeking him out. Amubieya, who is African American and a fellow in the department of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, filmed the video about his work as a doctor for a video series called Black Men in White Coats.
“The weight of being one of the few male black doctors in a medical center is tangible,” said Amubieya. “Every new black male doctor gets closer to us changing the norm.”
Changing that norm has been a slow process. According to Altering the Course, Black Males in Medicine, a report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in 2015, the number of black men in medicine had been stagnant for the last four decades. In 1978, 1,410 African-American men applied to U.S. medical schools. In 2014, that number was 1,337, and increases have only been tiny since.
According to the report, reasons for the low numbers among black men applying to medical school include inadequate elementary and high school education and few mentors to offer advice and serve as role models.
The cost of medical school also remains a barrier, for many students of all races and ethnicities, noted Otis Brawly, an African-American physician and chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society.
While all those factors together keep too many black men from applying to medical school, “introducing prospective students to mentors was a factor we could do something about,” said Dale Okorodudu, who is African American and a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Dallas VA Medical Center and a
faculty member at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
In 2012, Okorodudu founded a nonprofit, Diverse Medicine, “to increase ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the field of medicine,” together with his brother Daniel—now an endocrinologist in Texas—when both did their medical training at Duke.
With an AAMC report on the numbers of African-American physicians came out in 2013, the two brothers filmed the first Black Men in White Coats video with a cell phone and posted it to YouTube, where it quickly racked up 30,000 views.
“Black Men in White Coats is intended to awaken young people to the possibility of a career that many have never considered and to give them the confidence to pursue that career,” said Okorodudu, who has written a book, “How to Raise a Doctor” that will be published in April.
Since then, several medical schools have produced and shared videos of African-American male doctors telling their stories and engaging with patients. UCLA produced the videos for their David Geffen School of Medicine, making it the fifth school and the first on the West Coast to take part in the video series.
The UCLA videos will be prominently placed on the school’s website, disseminated via social media and shared by the medical school’s community engagement groups, as well as other outreach groups affiliated with the school.
“We have a responsibility as a medical school to welcome the best and brightest young people from an array of ethnicities and social backgrounds to consider a career in medicine,” said Lynn Gordon, senior associate dean for diversity affairs at Geffen.
According to data from the California Healthcare Foundation, in 2015 African Americans made up six percent of the population in California, but only three percent of the physicians. That discrepancy can result in inferior care for African Americans.
There are disparities in the number of African American women accepted to medical school, but more African American women tend to apply compared to men. In 2014-2015, 712 black women and 515 black men were accepted out to medical school from a total of about 20,000 students accepted overall. Last year, the number of black women accepted increased to 932 and the number of men to 572 out of about 21,000 accepted students.
A 2015 report by the California Department of Public Health, Portrait of Promise: The California Statewide Plan to Promote Health and Mental Health Equity, found that “the ability of health and mental health care providers to effectively communicate with service recipients and to understand and respond to their cultural beliefs and values regarding health, illness, and wellness is essential for providing high-quality care to every person and for reducing health disparities among all social groups.”
Amubieya, the son of Nigerian immigrants who attended Yale University as an undergrad, and Columbia University for medical school, said he chose medicine during a career pageant at his childhood church. From then on, everyone at the church referred to him as doctor, propelling him toward his destiny.
“We need physicians who come from these communities because we’re the ones who are going to go back and practice in those communities,” said Stanley Frencher, an assistant professor-in-residence at the Geffen School of Medicine and the director of surgical outcomes and quality for Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital. Frencher, who grew up seeing his doctor father go off to work every day, also stars in a video for the UCLA series.
Cultural competency is critical both in dealing with patients and in teaching non-black doctors to care for black patients. “That is not to say that black doctors have all the answers for black patients, it’s just that culture is one of the dimensions that has to be understood in terms of how patients will respond,” said Richard Williams, the immediate past president of the National Medical Association, which represents African-American physicians, and the first African-American full professor in the department of internal medicine at UCLA.
The UCLA videos will be shared on the organization’s website, the Geffen website, through social media and through programs on the UCLA campus that reach out to minority and low income high school students and undergraduates about pursuing a career in medicine.
Undergraduates also need better guidance on how to apply to medical school, which the doctors in the videos offer. After his video launched, Olawale Amubieya was contacted by a student applying to medical school and the two have since sat down to talk. Stanley Frencher says many students have reached out to him to update him on where they are in the application process.