Recently there has been a very strong call to attention regarding institutional racism in the United States, in the areas of housing, education and policing but many people may overlook the lack of racial equity and inclusion in medicine.
There are only 5% of active African American or Black physicians in the United States. This is in stark contrast with more than 55% of white doctors and 17.1% of Asians who dominate the medical field, according to a 2019 survey from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
African American doctors who have entered and remained in the field have been trailblazers for those coming after them in their communities and have used their experience to bring more equity and understanding into medical practice.
Among these physicians is Dr. John Flack who is a professor and the department chair of Internal Medicine at the SIU School of Medicine.
Flack grew up in Chickasha, Oklahoma during the 1960s Civil Rights era where there were no African American doctors in his city or family.
Despite this, he had dreams from a young age of becoming an astronaut or a doctor. He was only in grade four when he decided he would work in the medical field.
Flack said he considers himself lucky to have two parents as good role models who encouraged him, “to shoot high and aim high” and who told him not going to college was “not an option.”
He said one of the reasons there are very few Black doctors is because of lack of role models.
“The role models are typically not there,” Flack said. “When they [Black children] look at basketball players and football players, there are people who look like them all the time […] and they get the message, ‘I can do this.’”
According to Flack, other reasons for lack of African American doctors are the high rate of high school dropouts and the financial burden of medical school. The latter can prohibit Black students from pursuing a career in medicine because many Black families are suffering financially.
When Black people dropout of high school it can detrimentally impact their lifestyle, obesity levels and smoking patterns because of lack of proper health awareness, Flack said.
According to Flack, low income due to lack of education also can also inhibit African American people from eating a healthier, low sodium diet which may be more expensive.
Flack said many of the health issues in the African American community are due to structural racism instead of genetics.
Flack experienced a segregated education system in his youth and said when students dropout of high school or do not get good high school education, it is tougher to continue the long careers in medical school.
“Education is important,” Flack said. “We have an education system that does not treat people the same based on how they look […] The more education you have, the healthier you are.”
Diversity is one of the aspects of SIU that influenced Flack’s decision to accept a job there.
“SIU has a history of Black students, something I was taken back by. When I walked through the hallways, I saw pictures of Black students from the nineties […] I didn’t expect that,” Flack said.
He studied at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine in 1978 where there were only three Black students out of 168 people.
In his opinion, racism is more about perpetuation than discrimination. If hospital authorities entertain patient requests to be treated by a doctor of a preferred race and do not respond strongly against that, they contribute to structural racism.
Flack said structural racism today is not created but perpetuated. He mentioned a new movement in medicine called “race conscious treatment,” where physicians don’t pay attention to research that characterizes race as an important factor in administering treatments to patients, rather only science is given importance.
“Repeatedly in my career I had to battle racist interpretations of data that was closed to science,” Flack said.
The background of researchers can impact research data in terms of where the data came from and the setting up of a study. Therefore, more African American doctors and a more diverse group of educators can lead to a more scientifically accurate study, Flack said.
Such a study has lower chances of falling prey to fueling racist social constructs that homogenize Black people.
Even if there are illnesses that are more common among Black people, one should investigate the reason for it instead of assuming homogeneity, as there is plenty of variability genetically even among a racial group, Flack said.
Flack then spoke about the efforts of his department to make healthcare more inclusive and accessible, and the commendable work of community advisors focused on outreach to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to minorities.
The hope is that the work of Dr. Flack and others dedicated to change in the medical field will create a new standard and generation of medical professionals to help bring equal and well-informed healthcare to all people.
Staff reporter Diksha Mittal can be reached at email@example.com.
To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.