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Navy Medicine Hosts Discussion on “Black Men in White Coats” Documentary

10 December 2021

From ANDRÉ SOBOCINSKI

Across the United States, African Americans represent only two percent of all practicing physicians and 2.6 percent of dentists—despite comprising13 percent of the country.The disparity in medicine is greater among black males who remain underrepresented in U.S. medical schools. In fact, over the last 40 years the number of black men who applied to
Across the United States, African Americans represent only two percent of all practicing physicians and 2.6 percent of dentists—despite comprising13 percent of the country.

The disparity in medicine is greater among black males who remain underrepresented in U.S. medical schools. In fact, over the last 40 years the number of black men who applied to medical schools has dropped.

This alarming trend—and the existing structural obstacles for black men becoming clinicians—are the subject of the American Medical Association (AMA) documentary, Black Men in White Coats. On December 10, 2021, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) hosted a discussion panel to explore some of the film’s themes.

The event featured introductory remarks by Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, Navy Surgeon General, who noted that African Americans make-up 4.4 percent of the Medical Corps, 4.7 percent of Dental Corps and a total of 8.3 percent of total staff corps officers in Navy Medicine.

“We need to make a serious investment in increasing representation in the medical workforce and advancing inclusion within our communities,” said Gillingham. “That starts by objectively assessing where we are today, how we got here and making a commitment to addressing those issues head on by developing executable solutions.”

Capt. F.A. McRae, Navy Medicine’s Diversity Officer, served as moderator for panel that was comprised of six health care providers and military leaders—Capt. Daryl Daniels, Deputy Director, Medical Systems Integration & Combat Survivability and a general surgeon; Capt. Kevin Prince, Commanding Officer, Naval Medicine Readiness Training Command (NMRTC) Charleston, South Carolina, and a dentist; Capt. Rodney Scott, an endodontist with the Naval Postgraduate Dental School Bethesda, Md; Capt. Sennay Stefanos, an orthodontist with NMRTC Annapolis, Md; CAPT Sharese White, an orthopedic surgeon at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital; and Capt. Kevin Meyers, Commander, Naval ROTC Unit at The George Washington University.

For most of the panelists the desire to become clinicians began early in their lives and was fostered through families and mentors. Achieving their professional goals was not without challenges though and along the way they encountered little in terms of diversity in their chosen professions.

CAPTs Scott and White noted the rarity of seeing people of similar backgrounds within their daily professional environments. “You get used to being one of the only or one of a few,” noted Scott. “I feel a documentary like this reminds us that it is a problem that we all need to be aware of. We need to let people know that there are opportunities for you and people who look like me, who look like us have to be out there reminding people that you can achieve if you try and if you know it is a possibility.”

“Seeing this film reminded me of all of the progress that still needs to be made,” stated Capt. Daniels. “But it was great to see another generation of leadership come in and take on the challenge.”

The “Black Men in White Coats” initiative was the brainchild of Dr. Dale Okorududu as a response to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) report showing a decrease in black male applicants to medical schools. Over the last several years the “Black Men in White Coats” initiative has resulted in a film, a book, live discussions and interactive events with the purpose of bringing attention to the inequities in medicine, building mentorships and inspiring the next generation of black males to enter medicine.

The film looks at ways to change the current trajectory including fostering greater dialogue in communities of color. Part of the film takes place in a Dallas barbershop where Dr. Okorududu and a pre-med student named Travon Manning have a frank conversation about existing barriers. For Capt. Prince having that open dialogue is essential for addressing the existing issues and cited the scene as among the film’s most powerful. “Back when I used to have hair I used to go to the barber shops to get my hair cut,” related Prince. “I can tell you we solved world hunger, we solved poverty, we sent people to Neptune while in the barber shop getting my hair cut. It is a laboratory for ideas and thought.”

Of course seeing more people with similar backgrounds and experiences can have a significant impact on the career paths young people choose. The panelists agreed that it is important for men and women of color to work in their communities so that the next generation can understand the opportunities that are available, and conceptualize what is possible.

In the film Dr. Okorududu remarks that, “If you don’t have a seat at the table you are on the menu.” Panelists discussed this point and examined some of the obstacles to entering medical schools. For Capt. White the filtering out of black males from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] programs is an underlying issue that has fed into this problem. “The reason why there aren’t more male doctors is not because the med schools are not letting them in,” stated White. “It’s because their dream is getting killed before they even get to that point. I think we need to start thinking a little bit earlier as to how we get more black men to go to medical school and it starts with why if there is a large concentration of black men in a community, why are they filtered out of programs that are STEM based and once you do have them there how are they filtered out in college?”

The panelists agreed that it is essential to introduce black males to these programs earlier in their lives. Capt. Prince stated that grades fifth through 9th was especially a vital period. “This is a timeframe when you see them formulating their opinions about the world, themselves and their environment,” said Prince. “It is a very inquisitive timeframe.”

Capt. McRae closed out the panel discussion by emphasizing the value of diversity, inclusion and equity across the health care system and the U.S. Navy, stating: “We know that with our shared resolve, we can, and will, increase diverse representation amongst health care providers in our Nation and cultivate an environment of inclusion and equity with the Navy Medicine Team.”

Clearly, much work still needs to be done to address the problem of diversity in medicine and the discussion and film should be considered a clarion call for change rather than the end goal. As Capt. White explained, “The energy we are putting into highlighting the problem needs to go into fixing it.”

For more on film please see: https://www.blackmeninwhitecoats.org

To watch the complete panel discussion please see: https://youtu.be/7y6cUWC2M9g
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