The pre-med track is not one for the lighthearted. As the field of medicine has become increasingly competitive, resources and support networks are crucial to a student’s personal and professional success. The underrepresentation of marginalized communities in pre-med, intensified by a lack of support and resources, can make this pathway both unwelcoming and unfavorable.
Fitz Tavernier Jr., a first-generation African-American male of Caribbean descent, wrote an article in early 2018 about his experiences in his undergraduate career as a pre-med student. He stated that, “for minority students, the higher [they] go, the fewer people [they] see around [them] who look like [them],” which can foster feelings of isolation and a lack of motivation.
Although intimidated by the field, Tavernier eventually found other BIPOC pre-medical students and organizations that he could learn from and share his experiences with. He claimed that this “allowed [him] to make it through sanely and stay motivated.”
Support systems can be the foundation for pre-med students, like Tavernier, to endure the rigor and burnout of this extremely difficult track, but they are not always available to BIPOC students in schools with an especially white pre-med student body. And, an absence of community-based associations can immensely deter interest from the field of medicine, which may contribute to the lack of representation of BIPOC in medicine today.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, among active physicians in the U.S, only 5% identified as Black or African American, 5.8% identified as Latinx, and 0.3% as Indigenous or Alaskan Native. This severe gap has lasting repercussions. The perpetual overrepresentation of white physicians contributes to a problematic cycle because to ensure mutually communicative physician-patient relationships, marginalized communities need to be equally present.
The perpetual overrepresentation of white physicians contributes to a problematic cycle because to ensure mutually communicative physician-patient relationships, marginalized communities need to be equally present.
The distinctive disparity of Black people in the medical profession has historic roots, as Black students were not accepted into medical school until 1868. It was only after the Civil War that Howard University became the first medical school to welcome Black students, but even then faculty members were denied membership from the American Medical Association through 1884.
Studies published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities contextualize why BIPOC students are applying and matriculating less than their white counterparts, and how this can negatively impact the healthcare system that benefits from diverse ethnic and racial perspectives.
One finding from the journal was that, “negative media depictions of minorities can result in internalization of stereotypes and affect educational attainment and therefore achievement of career path goals.” As media portrayals of BIPOC are typically stereotyped — evident in films, television, and news coverage — and with such little representation of BIPOC in the medical field, pre-med students of color may feel unable to attain success from a career in medicine and, as a result, eliminate any former desire to pursue that pathway.
Without ethnically and racially diverse physicians in the field, students are less likely to have role models to look up to as successful figures in medicine. Career attractiveness also comes from personally knowing people that are in the field and relating to those mentors through similar lived experiences and environments.
Another point in the paper discussed how higher financial costs for medical school deter low-income students interested in medicine. Preparatory materials, MCAT registration, application fees, and airfare for interviews cost a large sum of money. With most applicants applying to around 16 medical schools, the financial burden alone can weed out low-income students and become a deciding factor to not attend medical school. Many students may then be inclined to instead prepare for a faster-paying occupation.
Less BIPOC physicians can also lead to BIPOC patients not trusting and communicating honestly with their healthcare provider — impacting the quality of our nation’s health care.
An NBER study determined that when Black male patients were seen by Black doctors they agreed to more invasive, preventative services. The research concluded that with greater diversity in the medical workplace, such as with more Black physicians, Black patients can feel safer with preventative care that reduces chances of mortality by a number of different illnesses.
The underrepresentation of BIPOC in the medical field needs to be addressed to help combat the recurring cycle of predominantly high-income, white people being admitted into the medical field. Recognizing and acting on this issue ensures that the healthcare system is providing the same quality of care to every person, regardless of the color of their skin, and that there are enough BIPOC healthcare providers to inspire the next generation of pre-med students.
Last updated 11/12/20
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