Few Young Blacks Pursue Medicine

Kym Klass, Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama), March 11, 2010

To Jefferson Underwood III, being one of the 4.4 percent of African-American doctors in the United States means there is a long way to go.

The Montgomery physician said this is the first generation of doctors not actively encouraging people to follow in their footsteps.

“It’s because of all the problems that come with it,” he said. “Malpractice, decreasing reimbursement–those who tend to get around those issues certainly are not coming back to Montgomery.”

African-Americans currently make up nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 4.4 percent of all U.S. physicians and surgeons. They are considered an underrepresented minority (URM) in medicine, according to the Journal of the National Medical Association.

While African-Americans have many major advances in some fields during the past decades, the proportion of black physicians in the United States has changed little.

Despite affirmative action programs instituted by medical schools in the 1960s and 1970s, African- Americans comprised only 3.1 percent of all U.S. physicians in 1980.

Because affirmative action alone was unsuccessful in achieving diversity goals, in 1990 the Association of American Medical Colleges launched Project 3000 by 2000, an initiative to increase the number of these underrepresented minorities in medicine.

But instead of the hoped for 3,000, there were only about 1,700 underrepresented minorities in U.S. medical schools in 2000. The numbers peaked in 1994, but have since stagnated.

Cynthia Barginere, chief nursing officer and chief operating officer at Baptist Medical Center South, said the lack of African-American physicians is a national issue, an issue that has focused on schools and the lack of strong math and science programs.

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From 2004 Census statistics of the U.S. Labor Department and of the American Medical Association, there are approximately 885,000 (884,974) doctors in the U.S. This represents about .29 percent of the population, or one-third of 1 percent. There is roughly one doctor to 300 people in the U.S.

Races other than Caucasians are significantly underrepresented. Caucasians represent 47.8 percent of all physicians. Black doctors only make up 2.3 percent, and Hispanic doctors about 3.2 percent. The largest minority percentage is made up of Asians, at 8.3 percent of all doctors.

“In terms of managed care, this is the first generation of doctors which is not actively encouraging people in their footsteps,” Underwood said. “People don’t want to come to Montgomery not because of the past, but because of current problems.

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“Most African Americans are not privy to such role models in their lives,” he said. “Also, we have to look at paying for medical school. We’re considered public servants. Firemen don’t have to pay to learn to be a fireman, policemen don’t. . . . But I have to pay to learn how to be a doctor.”

At the end of the day, if African Americans don’t see a doctor role model, “you won’t know how to be one,” Barginere said.

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