Delta Incidents, Film Underscore Need for More Black Female Doctors
Two flights. One airline. Same story.
By now, you may have heard about Tamika Cross, M.D., a black physician who says she offered to provide medical assistance to an ill passenger aboard a Delta Air Lines flight in early October. After asking if there were qualified passengers who could help, a white flight attendant told Cross to put her hand down because she was "looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel." The flight crew "didn't have time" to talk to Cross, who is a fourth-year OB/Gyn resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Later that same week, family medicine resident Ashley Denmark, D.O., reported that she had a similar experience on another Delta flight when a flight attendant rejected her offer to help a sick passenger, deferring to two white nurses instead.
It might be as easy to make excuses for the flight attendants as it would be to blame the airline for a lack of cultural awareness. After all, only 4 percent of U.S. physicians are black, and nearly half of them are men. Aside from actress Chandra Wilson portraying a doctor on Grey's Anatomy, many Americans have never seen -- let alone been seen by -- a black female physician.
But it's one thing to see something for the first time, and it's another to see it and be unwilling to believe it -- even if the black woman is standing in a hospital, holding a reflex hammer and wearing a white lab coat, a stethoscope and a name tag that says "doctor."
Clearly, bias against black female physicians isn't limited to one airline or even one industry. What people who haven't walked in our shoes might not have realized before #whatadoctorlookslike started trending on Twitter is that this kind of disrespect happens far too often.
As tweets, blogs and negative news coverage rained down on Delta, black female physicians shared their stories of being mistaken for nurses, physician assistants, dietitians, hospital food service employees and housekeeping staff (often after introducing themselves as doctors). Implicit bias doesn’t allow some people to see beyond their preconceived notions even when the facts should be obvious.
Children in this country often are told that they can grow up to be whatever they want, but some Americans don't seem ready to embrace that concept when it comes to minorities. The disconnect is hard to comprehend eight years after a black family moved into the White House.
Although our numbers are relatively small, black female physicians aren't new. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D., became the first black female physician in the United States in 1864 -- one year before the end of the Civil War. There have been plenty of other pioneers in our lifetimes:
- Alexa Canady, M.D., became the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981.
- Mae Jemison, M.D., was the first black woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program in 1987 and in 1992 she became the first black woman in space.
- Velma Scantlebury, M.D., became the nation's first black female transplant surgeon in 1989.
- Pediatrician Joycelyn Elders, M.D., was the first black person and only the second woman to lead the U.S. Public Health Service, and she became the first black physician to be appointed Surgeon General in 1993.
- Family physician Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., became the first black woman and the first person younger than 40 to be elected to the AMA Board of Trustees in 1995. Seven years later, she became the first black woman to lead a state medical society. And in 2009 she was named surgeon general.
Many of these incredible women are featured in the recent documentary Black Women in Medicine and its companion book, Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine. These works tell how black women have overcome barriers related to race and gender to become successful in their fields. The multimedia campaign, which includes an educational component, aims to inspire young people of color to pursue careers in medicine and other STEM fields and provide them with resources and mentorship to help open doors.
Elders, who had never seen a black physician before she went to college, points out that, "You can't be what you can't see."
In addition to inspiring young people of color, we hope these stories raise awareness among all Americans that we are here, we are doing vital work and our country needs more of us.
Javette Orgain, M.D., M.P.H., is speaker of the AAFP Congress of Delegates.
Ada Stewart, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
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