At first glance the numbers might not seem significant, but the decline of black men enrolling in medical school could have long-lasting ramifications for many minority communities.
According to a recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, during the last 35 years the number of black men entering medical school to become physicians has declined. In 1978 a total of 1,410 black men applied to medical school. In 2014 that number had slipped to 1,337.
That difference may seem trivial, but Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, who is also a physican, explained why it’s a cause for concern.
“The dramatic thing about it is that it hasn’t expanded. You would hope that you would have a larger number of African-American males being trained in medicine,” Frederick told The Root. “That number presents a dramatic fall—the fact that it’s a lower number given the population.”
According to the AAMC study, other racial demographic groups have remained steady or increased their medical-school enrollment. However, black men face challenges—such as financial struggles, lack of mentorship, limited access to stellar primary education and other obstacles—that often keep them from enrolling.
While members of other racial groups may face similar challenges, Frederick suggested, “It’s more dramatic with African-American men.
“There are a couple of reasons we’re seeing at Howard University,” he continued. “Our incoming freshmen, our black men who are coming in, are scoring higher on their standardized tests. As a result, they’re getting into fields that would require strong math performance, such as finance and accounting. They’re doing that instead of disciplines that would lead to medicine. They’re more likely to go the Wall Street route. We have to do a better job of trying to attract them to medicine. They clearly have the academic aptitude.”
Frederick explained that the lack of black male doctors could have a negative effect on those in some communities: “Not having physicians with whom patients can connect can have a dramatic effect on their health.” Studies have shown that people often feel more comfortable discussing their health when they can relate to their doctors. Oftentimes, that means seeing a professional of the same race.
There are also lingering trust issues that many blacks have had since the Tuskegee experiment (1932-1972), in which black men were purposely infected with syphilis for medical research.
“Tuskegee has left a long-lasting impression. Signing up African Americans in clinical research is already a difficult thing to do. It becomes more difficult if you have fewer African-American physicians. It can have really dramatic effects in terms of overall health for certain communities,” Frederick said.
The doctors and medical students interviewed for the study mentioned that resilience is a requirement to succeed in the challenging field, where black men also have to battle negative stereotypes and preconceived ideas about their professional opportunities.
Frederick said that mentorship—something that will likely decrease as fewer black male doctors are entering the field—will help younger aspiring doctors stay the course. A decline in the number of medical-school enrollees results in fewer physicians to encourage would-be doctors of tomorrow.
“Your pool for role models to get into the profession is decreasing,” noted Frederick, who said that the Howard University College of Medicine continues to produce great physicians, despite the challenges.
“If you put the opportunity in front of students and support them, they will go after it,” Frederick said. “We are committed to continuing to do that.”