UCLA urologist Stanley Frencher’s father was a black doctor, and his babysitters were black medical students. He didn’t realize black men were underrepresented in medicine until he himself went to medical school.
“For my whole career, I benefited from great mentorship from black men who happen to be physicians. I thought nothing of black men being doctors,” he said. “But as I went through school, I noticed that most had a different experience … very few people, patients and colleagues included, weren’t exposed to other African-American men becoming physicians.”
Frencher is participating in the Black Men in White Coats campaign, which aims to increase representation of black men in medical professions. The campaign is the result of a 2013 Association of American Medical Colleges report that found the enrollment of black men in medical schools was declining. To combat the trend, the campaign partnered with medical schools nationwide to film a documentary featuring black male physicians to provide guidance for black premedical and medical students.
Frencher said he agreed to be featured last month because he thinks there is a physician shortage in low-income communities with large minority populations, such as Detroit and South Los Angeles, which could be alleviated by encouraging minorities to enter medical professions.
Frencher said he thinks many black students do not consider medical school because they lack exposure to medical professions or because they are easily discouraged by its rigor, expense and lengthy duration. He added he thinks medical schools should be more affordable to make medicine a more attractive and accessible profession.
“The biggest reward is the end result, though … there’s no better job than being a doctor,” he said. “There’s no better inspiration that you can change a community than by becoming a physician.”
Frencher said he thinks one of the best ways to encourage black men and other minorities to enter medical professions is to provide them with better mentorship and guidance through programs or counselors.
“Even if times are tough, even if you can’t finish this long race, there are people out there that can help you,” he said. “We’ve all had doubts, all had challenges – having people around you to encourage you is critical.”
Olawale Amubieya, a fellow in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and a participant in the “Black Men in White Coats” docuseries, said he thinks African-American students should be exposed to medical professions as early as middle or high school. He said he thinks they should learn about the different specialties in medicine, such as social work and respiratory therapy, to be aware of nontraditional paths in the field.
Amubieya said he was first exposed to medicine when he participated in a medical program for minority undergraduates the summer after his first year of college. For six weeks, he gained clinical exposure at Howard University, a historically black university, and received guidance from black physicians.
“Medical school isn’t easy to get into or get through,” Amubieya said. “If you don’t know anyone who’s done it, it’s challenging to know what to expect and surmount obstacles.”
Jasmine Hanna, a second-year physiological science student and a board member of the Black Pre-Health Organization at UCLA, said she thinks universities should provide more support to black undergraduate students pursuing a pre-med degree.
Hanna said she started her pre-med studies with a strong role model of black women in medicine because her mother is an orthopedic surgeon. However, she struggled to balance her academics and her extracurricular involvement her first year, and felt unprepared for her courses.
“I was questioning what I wanted to do – ‘Do I still want to be a doctor?’ I wasn’t succeeding, and wasn’t enjoying my science classes,” Hanna said. “I wasn’t motivated and felt stuck.”
She said BPHO helped her and rekindled her interest in medicine by providing her with close mentorship from black peers. Hanna added she felt anxious when surrounded by other competitive pre-med students because there are few black students in pre-med classes.
She added she thinks weeder classes – classes with strict curves common on the pre-med track – lack faculty and student support, and can discourage African-American students and push them to switch career paths early on in college.
“UCLA can do more support to these students,” Hanna said. “Luckily I was able to find a group of African-American premed students to find support and study together, but there’s room for improvement.”
Jana Lang, a second-year pre-human biology and society student, said when she was unsure about pursuing medicine, hearing a female African-American doctor speak inspired her to continue in the field.
She added she thinks more visible outreach methods should accompany the Black Men in White Coats campaign.
“It would be helpful to have diverse doctors visit schools and show kids that it’s not impossible,” she said. “The problem with the docuseries is that it’s not easily accessible, and it’s important for the message to reach the masses.”