As a woman of color in medicine, I rarely see women who look like me in my medical school faculty.
By Bernadette Lim
When I first applied to medical school, I came in with a simple intention: to heal.
As the first in the family to become a physician, being a doctor to me means more than learning all the up-to-date biomedical knowledge and diagnoses. Rather, training to become a doctor is my lifetime commitment to underserved communities across the world who face health injustices and do not have quality healthcare services.
As a woman of color in medicine with Filipino and Chinese immigrant heritages, I rarely see women who look like me in my medical school faculty. I am currently a second year at the 5-year, dual-degree Joint Medical Program with UCSF School of Medicine and UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and I’ve witnessed how my hopes to learn how to heal and care for the underserved are not prioritized by medical education and oftentimes left to student-initiated electives and optional seminars. Rigorous rote memorization of diseases, drugs, and diagnoses are seen as the priority rather than regular conversations about health injustices faced by underserved communities and tools on how to put forth empathy in patient encounters.
While the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has celebrated the fact that women now comprise over 50% of medical students, a seminal report called “Breaking Down Barriers for Women Physicians of Color” by the Greenlining Institute and Artemis Medical Society found that only 11.7% of active physicians are women of color, challenging whether such celebration by the AAMC is too premature.
The report by the Greenlining Institute and Artemis Medical Society named specific barriers that impeded the entry of women of color into medicine including the expenses of the medical school application process, tokenization (i.e. being the only woman or person of color asked to be present or serve on various initiatives to fill diversity quotas), and overt instances of racism by medical school faculty.
In addition, racist tropes about people of color continue are to be taught as a critical part of medical school education. Race, a social category that has no biological basis, is seen as a risk factor for many diseases. Rather than naming the embodied effects of racism, one’s race is wrongly taught as an inherently biological risk factor for diabetes, hypertension, asthma, birthing complications, and kidney failure, among many others.
In spite of communities of color facing disparities in health outcomes, medical education does not center teaching about the psychosocial and environmental effects on health including embodied effects of racism (structural, institutional, and interpersonal), trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and poverty. In spite of evidence that the majority of health issues stem from and are perpetuated by socioeconomic factors, As a medical student, I am not given the frameworks or tools on how to address these issues in a critical way.
Without the inclusion of more women of color in medicine, these narrow and outdated perspectives on health, disease, and well-being will continue to go unchallenged. In addition, the hierarchical nature of medical training will continue to leave aspiring women of color physicians feeling isolated, unmotivated, and burnt out. As training physicians, failure to challenge the current state of medical education will continue to cultivate miseducation of individuals of color as hallmarks of disease rather than humans bearing the consequences of inequality, poverty, and oppression.
In late October, my colleague and I launched Woke WOC Docs, a podcast about the lives of women of color in medicine/health justice, including their unique experiences, viewpoints, and struggles in medical education, research, and practice. This is initiative was also part of an initiative we started in January 2018 called the Freedom School for Intersectional Medicine and Health Justice, a community of students, professors, and community members dedicated to creating an intersectional medicine and public health that is community-centered and advocates for the collective liberation and healing for all people.
By interviewing women of color of various stages and specialties of medical training, Woke WOC Docs hopes to reveal the insights we as women of color uniquely have on how medicine can transform to end health injustices and be a better institution of health, well-being, and healing.
In addition, we want to initiate a conversation on how medicine can better work with underserved and underrepresented communities to end health injustices rather than perpetuate them. Topics covered in most recent episodes include activism in medicine, addressing imposter syndrome, naming privilege while fighting against oppression, issues of race-based medicine, and social justice in clinical experiences.
Just as Dr. Zoë Julian articulated in a Woke WOC Docs episode entitled “Decolonizing Ourselves and Medicine”, medicine will never know its blind spots unless it surrounds itself with women of color who have been historically excluded from its doors. The opposite of racism is not diversity: it is anti-racism. The time to change the face of medicine is now.