Category Archives: Underrepresented in Medicine

The Path We Took

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Octavia M. Amaechi, MD

“Oh, you’re Dr Amaechi! You didn’t sound black over the phone!” The seconds following this all-too-familiar statement pass slowly. I glance at the weak, but recuperating, middle-aged patient I cared for over the past week on our busy hospitalist service. His wife had finally arrived to thoroughly review his complicated hospital course and plans for care after discharge after near daily personal updates from me via telephone. From his grim prognosis on admission, time spent at death’s door in the ICU, to making daily figurative and literal steps to recovery on one of our med surg units, we spoke frequently as her unforgiving work schedule and family obligations interfered with her ability to be consistently at his side.

Clearly surprised by the color of my skin she continues “I mean, you explained everything so well, and you don’t have an accent at all…” Still silent, I now glance at the nurse who paged me when she arrived as I requested. As a family physician, I aspire to the tenets of my specialty in every sphere—treating the patient and family in context of their values and individual needs. Patients are especially vulnerable when met with acute illnesses that invariably arrive at the worst moments. A milieu of diagnoses, tests and procedures, room transfers, fear and uncertainty, all heighten stress levels in the inpatient setting. Their values are tested (Do we want this feeding tube?) and their needs are unknown (How long will we need inpatient rehabilitation?). Consequentially, this environment can unshroud racial and cultural misperceptions, bias, discriminatory beliefs, or racism from those we family physicians have promised to serve.

His nurse speaks, “Yes this is Dr Amaechi. You spoke with her yesterday.” There’s another place I glance—to a much younger version of myself in fifth grade. In this moment, and unfortunately others like it, I recall my earliest memories of being accused and teased by classmates for “sounding white.” I am the first American born into a Jamaican immigrant family. I was raised in a neighborhood heavily influenced by Caribbean and a multitude of other cultures from around the globe in the very heart of Brooklyn, New York. How could I sound white, I thought? How do you sound like a color? At 9 years old I had no clue what this meant, but the words from my peers stung. I eventually realized, disheartenedly, that loving to learn, being intelligent, speaking with clarity, and other positive attributes were and often still are associated with whiteness.

Thankfully my social support system, especially my parents and older sister, setting clear expectations and giving constant affirmations outweighed the threat of peer pressure and stereotype conformation. I was encouraged to work hard for whatever I wanted, but also given the freedom to not be perfect. With very few resources and even less knowledge about the American education system I was instilled with miles of grit. Now as a faculty physician at the family medicine residency program where I trained in South Carolina, I still benefit tremendously from a strong professional and personal support system that now includes my husband and two children. Here I have succeeded in positions that align with my strengths, passions, and talents both inside and out of our large community-based hospital system. I have the privilege of teaching medical students and residents alongside outstanding family physicians. I have been awarded the distinction of Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physician and Designation of Focused Practice in Hospital Medicine. I have been elected chair of family medicine within my hospital system, chair our local women in medicine group, and am a board member elect of the county medical society.

Similarly, as an STFM member for just under 2 years I’ve received tremendous mentoring and sponsorship, been entrusted with leadership roles, and continue to collaborate on multiple initiatives and projects with family medicine colleagues across the country. I have been elected to serve as co-chair for the New Faculty Collaborative. I am also quite blessed and excited to work one on one with amazing mentors from the Minority in Medicine Collaborative as a recipient of the STFM Underrepresented Minority in Medicine Writing Scholarship. My STFM membership has allowed me to create many meaningful relationships, and simultaneously ignited my path for academic advancement. In fact, I can now add international conference speaker to my portfolio with successful presentations at the 2019 STFM Annual Spring Conference in Toronto, Canada!

I glance once more to my recovering patient. While there is no single right way to navigate such an encounter, this time my direct silence has spoken volumes. His wife realizes her error in thought and perception grounded in implicit bias that we all undoubtedly have in one form or another. She apologizes and once again my presence has changed the narrative of what one perceives a capable, caring, intelligent, physician to be. We discuss the most pressing concerns and I answer her questions, including one unexpected, but always warming: “Can you be our family doctor once he is discharged?”

One patient, one family, one learner, one presentation, one leadership position, one outreach endeavor at a time—as I strive for professional and personal growth and advocate for the community around me, I hope my life will always silence stereotypes of what a black voice can be.

In Pursuit of Equity

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Cleveland Piggott, MD, MPH

“He died because he’s black!” screamed his mother, inconsolable in the intensive care unit as her unresponsive teenage son underwent formal neurologic examination. We had done all that we could. Mr M had experienced a cardiac arrest for unknown reasons at home, and his mom felt the emergency medical technicians treated her son differently, possibly even withholding care, because of his race. She already knew what the result of the neurologic testing would be, as did I, a second-year family medicine resident at the time. Now I’m an assistant professor, and I still remember the despair in that mother’s voice and the weight of her statement.

His mother may be right. The report Unequal Treatment showed us that health care disparities still exist among racial and ethnic groups even when you control for income, age, insurance, and severity of medical condition.1 Regardless of the facts of Mr M’s clinical course, his mother lost a son that day. Her trust and view of the health care system will never be the same. Our health care system often fails people that look like Mr M. It fails people that look like me.

Being new faculty and the only black, male member in our department of family medicine (DFM), which comprises more than 200 faculty, comes with its share of challenges and opportunities.

I love what I do. I’m so incredibly grateful that I found a job where they pay me to do what I love:  care for patients and teach the next generation of physicians. I find that to be a great privilege and honor. However, I pay close attention to what opportunities I take on, as I try to minimize the “minority tax” I have to pay.

The minority tax refers to the extra responsibilities placed on minority faculty in the name of diversity.2 This tax is extremely complex, and it is sometimes self-imposed by faculty due to a sense of responsibility they feel. For example, as a young faculty member in medical education, I know a day will come when I have to decide if I’ll be the one implementing curriculum or the one creating it. I worry that my ability to develop curriculum and essentially create change will be limited by my own obligation to make sure students of color see faculty that look like them. Nationally, only 4% of full-time faculty in academic medicine are black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Native American/Alaskan Native.3

Being an example for students of color is something I don’t take lightly. However, I have mixed emotions at times. I’m happy to stand with them in solidarity on issues that disproportionately affect them and people who look like them, but it can be emotionally exhausting at times—never more so than at last year’s White Coats for Black Lives Annual Die-In on the medical school campus.

During our demonstration, I felt a variety of emotions. Pride, as I lay on the ground with more than 50 medical students, residents, and other faculty as we reflected on dire outcomes inequity has in our society and the importance of health professionals using their power and their voice to advocate for change. Sad, that not a single one of my family medicine colleagues was out there with me. Tired, as I reflected on the long road ahead to achieve equity for all people. Determined to continue to advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in medicine, starting with my own DFM.

Though family medicine boasts to be a specialty that advocates EDI, I was disappointed in the work happening in my own DFM. When I brought up some of my concerns with my department chair, to my surprise, he agreed. Additionally, he provided support and a stage to make improving EDI a priority in our department. I, along with some of my colleagues, formed a working group with that mission, and we called ourselves the “Justice League”.

Through the Justice League, we’re changing the culture of the DFM and have a lot of accomplishments and ongoing endeavors in less than a year of work, including the following:

  • Changing our mission, vision, and values statement to reflect our verbal commitment to EDI,
  • Providing monthly education sessions to DFM personnel on issues of EDI in medicine and how they can make change,
  • Reinvigorating a conversation among our researchers on how we incorporate EDI in all of our research,
  • Changing our website to make EDI more visible,
  • Collaborating with our clinical affairs team in changing their hiring practices,
  • Analyzing our health outcomes based on race and ethnicity at our largest clinic,
  • Conducting a climate survey to take a hard look at ourselves and areas of improvement,
  • Partnering with an outside consultant to do a training on racism in medicine,
  • Lastly, we’re in the process of creating a senior leadership position for EDI for our department and in negotiations for funding a team.

I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done and know we have so much more we can do both inside and outside of our department. More importantly, I look forward to seeing the impact this work and our future work will have on my colleagues, medical students, and our community.

Though I have little faith that we’ll get to equal treatment in this country, I am proud to be someone fighting to close the gap, one step at a time.

References

  1. Nelson A. Unequal treatment: confronting racial and ethnic disparities in health care. J Natl Med Assoc. 2002;94(8):666-668.
  2. Rodríguez JE, Campbell KM, Pololi LH. Addressing disparities in academic medicine: what of the minority tax? BMC Med Educ. 2015;15(1):6. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-015-0290-9
  3. Association of American Medical Colleges Diversity Policy and Programs. Diversity in Medical Education: Facts and Figures. Washington, DC: AAMC; 2012.

 

STFM Is My Most Precious Membership

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Evelyn Figueroa, MD

I have learned so much from its people, meetings, collaboratives, group projects, and online resources. STFM’s mission is my professional mission – to advance the health of our patients through education. STFM was the first place where I found mentors that looked and sounded like me. It has created the space for me to find and develop my professional identity and learn so much more beyond the physical medicine promoted in medical school. My involvement in STFM has provided repeated opportunities to learn and expand my reach in health care education.

Like many members, STFM is my happy place, a place where I can recharge and stretch. After each spring meeting I normally return to Chicago with a list filled with new ideas to build into my university work. Its work on health equity and social responsibility inspired me to develop curricula and clinical programs aimed at addressing health conditions related to food insecurity, homelessness, and drug use. What is so special about STFM is that it gave me the tools to advocate and integrate concepts related to bias in healthcare such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and privilege into my everyday teaching and patient care. Family medicine thought leaders like Camara Phyllis Jones and Warren Ferguson have given me the courage to disrupt and push for more humanistic and equitable care.

Between meetings STFM maintains its connection and I feel its support. My distance peer mentors Ed Figueroa (my “brother from another mother”), Judy Washington, and Jo Brown Speights taught me about how to provide quality mentoring to underrepresented minority physicians. On the Board of Directors, we explored what responsibility STFM as an organization has in providing social determinants of health training in substantial and sustainable ways. How validating it has been to feel the support of our entire organization in issues that matter to the community I serve so strongly!

So now here I am, a family physician activist in academic medicine pivoting my work towards health equity training in medical education. In 2017, with my incredibly supportive partner Alex Wu and our children, we started the Figueroa Wu Family Foundation. Our main project is the UI Health Pilsen Food Pantry, a program that has distributed more than 300,000 pounds of healthy food and household items to nearly 10,000 visitors since opening in January 2018. This open-access pantry operates 20 hours a week and is staffed by community, student, and resident volunteers. Our pantry teaches about bias, inequity, and food justice while providing an important service to the community. The pantry also serves as a learning laboratory to help students preserve their humanism while keeping patients at the center. With the help of medical students, we are developing a medical legal partnership to further advocate for our patients. Chicago is a place of excess where there is enough for everyone. I am trying to engage with the UIC community in order to help the overlooked and marginalized be heard and recognized.

I am not sure I would have found my professional voice without STFM. I appreciate all that STFM keeps teaching me about the power of family medicine. I want to be the physician my patients deserve and STFM is an integral part of my motivation and inspiration.