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Why Are There So Few Black Women Doctors?

Documentarian Crystal Emery breaks down the reasons behind the 2 percent.
Image courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Ellis

When I found that only 2 percent of practicing physicians in the United States are black women, I had trouble processing the thought. I am a black woman (not a physician) and my life is filled with fierce black female healers. But of course, anecdotal perceptions don't overridestatistics. The lack of representation is real, systemic, and it robs power and dignity from these women. Take, for example, the Delta Airlines flight attendant who implied that physician Tamika Cross (responding to an emergency on the plane) was not an "actual" doctor.


Writer and documentarian Crystal Emery provides both context and hope around this issue. As a black woman with a disability, Emery understands the insidious form of oppression that arises when people underestimate your capabilities. Her most recent project, a documentary called Black Women in Medicine, explores the unique barriers and triumphs that black women doctors face. This work (which includes her companion book, Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine) is part of a multi-faceted initiative called Changing the Face of Medicine, which aims to increase the percentage of African American physicians in America by 2025. I spoke to Emery about her new project.

What made you decide to make this documentary? I was asked to go with doctors from Yale to interview the first three black women doctors to graduate from Yale Medical School [Beatrix Ann (McCleary) Hamburg, in '48, Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette in '50 and Doris Louise Wethers in '52]. Dr. Doris Wethers was amazing. She was the second woman to graduate from Yale Medical School. In talking to her, I understood something that we—particularly those of us under the age of fifty in America—forget: A lot of people paved the way for us to be where we are. We stand where we are, on the shoulders of giants. Consciously and with great intention, people have given their lives for opportunities that we take for granted every day.


In Dr. Wethers' case, there was a group of black doctors who were brilliant and had not been allowed to [practice medicine] at white hospitals. And so they joined together and said We're going to break the color line. They kept applying, because they had the credentials that you could not just turn them down. And so Dr. Wethers became the first black practicing physician at St. Luke's Hospital. The story goes deeper because she was also a researcher, and none of the big hospitals or big research arms would hire her. She started doing research and it changed the life expectancy of sickle cell anemia patients from 18 years to over 50 years.

I saw* Hidden Figures *and I've been thinking a lot about forgetting those who came before. Why do you think representation matters?

I don't understand what that question means because it's not about representation. It's about participation. We are part of the American fabric. We built this country. Just like those women in Hidden Figures were instrumental in bringing that man to the moon, we have built every aspect of America, yet we are not included in the narrative. That is why I do the work that I do, because we have created what people are reaping the benefits of, but we're not included in the narrative. Women physicians earn 64 cents for every dollar that a man earns. That's across the board. Seventy-eight percent of women make up the healthcare profession, but only 5 percent sit on a major board. Isn't that a huge difference? And 0 percent are CEOs of Fortune 500 healthcare companies. So when we think about that, our project encourages all women. Our children need to know that they can dream big, and as Dr. [Joycelyn] Elders puts it so eloquently, "you can't be what you can't see."


In your TED Talk, you speak about being part of three marginalized communities as a black woman with a disability, but also that you see yourself as pure energy in motion. How did you get to that place of positivity?

I never heard my parents use racial markers on people. It was not until I was bussed out into the total suburbs did that demarcation even come into my existence. And so, part of my makeup during my formative years was that there was no difference. It wasn't until society told me I was poor, black, and stupid [that I encountered that idea] and it was already too late because my daddy told us that we were princes and princesses. I was bussed to Cheshire, a suburb of New Haven, and we were the first black kids to [participate in] the first bussing program. It was very hostile and it was very terrible, but those people could not make me feel less than and here's why: Every day I went to school with a sense of security—that I was loved.

This documentary aims to normalize black women as healers, doctors and medical professionals—

We have always been 'normalized'…as caretakers and healers. We just haven't been paid for it.

So why do you think more women, more black women, are funneled into social work or nursing rather than encouraged to become doctors?

Our society doesn't encourage women in general to be doctors. Out of all doctors in America about 34 percent are women, okay? And that number just reached that point last year. So it's been a long fight for women in general. For black women, it's not just about race; it's the effect of racism. It's not having access to economics. It's not having a structure that says "you can do this." So it's not a simple dilemma. My vision is to join our allies to increase that number [of African American doctors] from 2 percent to 7 percent.


How do you think raising the percentage will impact healthcare and the culture at large?

Well statistically, it is known that patients do better when they are working with a physician that they're comfortable with, and being comfortable is being with somebody that looks like you. Actually, there was an article that came out [a few] weeks ago, that said patients show better results with a female doctors.

Right, about how female doctors reduce mortality rates in hospitals.

Yes. Also, you can take a white male and a black male and go into the ER showing the same symptoms. [Both men could] need a heart catheterization, but the black patient is never recommended for that next level of procedure. These aren't my statistics—these are NIH's—so when you have that, do you think that a black doctor, knowing that we die at a higher rate, is going to say [to the black patient], "Let's send you home and see how you feel tomorrow?" No, and that's how we change healthcare outcomes. We need doctors that represent the demographics of the country.

What do you say to the person who watches this film or reads the book and says, "Wow these women are amazing. They faced so many odds, but I can barely live my life. I must not have what they have"? Don't allow competitive thoughts to minimize your talents. Everybody has the god-given talent. My talent is storytelling and writing, and when my hands and legs became paralyzed, I could've easily chosen to say, woe is me, but I didn't because I want to live, I want to participate. You get to choose. Medicine is the vehicle to tell this story, but the real story is the triumph of the human spirit.

Black Women in Medicine will air on PBS stations nationwide 2/8 at 6:00 pm and re-airing at 9:00 pm (check local listings).