Blog | Friday, October 30, 2015

Being black and a doctor in America

Imagine you've a new medical student. You're trying to prove yourself among your professors and your peers. You dress the part, you work hard, and early on you start feeling like you can do it.

Then 1 morning as you enter the lecture hall, the professor says, “Oh, you're here to fix the lights. What took you so long?”

You turn around, thinking he can't be talking to you. But there's no one behind you. He has simply assumed that you've come to answer his maintenance request, because of the color of your skin.

Now imagine you're a resident, a doctor-in-training, working in hospitals to diagnose and treat patients at all hours of day and night. You enter a cubicle in the Emergency Department to evaluate your next patient, and he blurts out, “I don't want no n**ger doctor.” Welcome to the profession.

Such are the experiences of many African-American medical students and doctors in the U.S. Not only must minority medical students excel with the content of medical science, they must develop strategies for coping with people's pre-conceived notions about them based on their race.

A new memoir by 1 black doctor, Damon Tweedy, recounts his journey through these travails to become a faculty member in psychiatry at Duke University.

I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Tweedy recently, and I found him to be just like the self he presents in the book: thoughtful, warm-hearted, and very open and engaging. His memoir is an excellent read, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone thinking about joining the health care field, or anyone who likes memoir, recent U.S. history, or the study of race relations.

His book has generated reviews in major news sources, and while all of them laud his candor and writing, some criticize Dr. Tweedy for not fully addressing the policy questions surrounding the dearth of blacks (particularly black males) in the medical profession. I think this is an unfair criticism, because in telling his story, Tweedy moves the discussion forward and teaches Americans not in the medical profession something that the folks in charge of medical education already know.

Tweedy's book will move us forward in creating more inclusivity in Medicine. It's incumbent on all of us in health and education to think through ways of improving this imbalance.

This post by John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.