DALLAS – Oviea Akpotaire and Jeffrey Okonye put in long days working with patients at the veterans’ hospital in south Dallas as fourth-year medical students at the University of Texas Southwestern.
In a class of 237 people, they are two of only five black men.
“I knew the ones above us, below us,” Okonye says. “We all kind of know each other. It’s comforting to see another person that looks like you.”
It may be one of the few things that comfort them.
While more black men than ever have graduated from four-year colleges over the past few decades, the number applying to the nation‘s medical schools has dropped: From 1,410 in 1978 to 1,337 in 2014 (out of about 50,000 applicants), according to a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AMMC).
Enrollment statistics are similar: 542 black male students enrolled in 1978, compared to 515 in med school in 2014, the report showed.
Every other minority group – including Asians and Hispanics – saw growth in the number of applicants, the report showed, and black women also saw an uptick in applications.
Enrollment statistics for 2015 are just being released, and while they report a slight gain over the previous year, they remaining only slightly encouraging, some experts say.
“This is a positive sign, but it does not change the fact that for 35 years the number has been trending poorly,” says Marc Nivet, AAMC’s chief diversity officer.
Increasing ethnic and gender diversity among doctors is widely considered to be important in patient health because studies show people are more likely to follow doctors’ recommendations on things like medication, diet or exercise if they can relate to them.
Dr. Dale Okorodudu, a third-year pulmonary and critical care fellow at UT Southwestern med school in Dallas, says making cultural connections can make a big difference to patient care.
“If you can relate to [patients], it’s a lot easier for them to feel at home and comfortable with you,” he says.
Okorodudu, 31, who’ll complete his fellowship next year, wrote a blog post about an experience at Parkland Hospital that stuck with him. He was walking down the hallway on the 10th floor when a black man stopped him:
“It’s good to see you brother!” I had never met this man, but I knew exactly what he was talking about,” Okorodudu wrote. “With a large smile on his face and a look of pride, he extended his arm to give me a handshake and said: ‘There aren’t too many of us doing what you do. I’m glad we got some representation in here.’ ”
Too few role models
For years, Okorodudu has been trying to figure out why so few black men go into medicine. His conclusion: The lack of role models.
“If you’re a black male, let’s say you’re growing up in an inner-city neighborhood,” says Okorodudu, who decided to become a doctor at age 18. “There’s so many things directly in front of you that you have the option to go into.”
From music and sports to small business and the church, Okorodudu says those professions are visible and present in the lives of young African-American boys.
“But when you talk about the medical workforce, none of us are directly there in front of them,” he said.
Med student Jeffrey Okonye points out that for students like him who embraced math and science, there are much faster ways to “make it.”
“A lot of friends of mine, black males, are engineers. They go to school for four years. They have a job, great pay, even had internships in undergrad, I was highly jealous of,” Okonye says. “Whereas my route, four years undergrad, then another four years of school, and then another X amount of training after that.”
So why did he take the longer route? The answer is simple: A desire to make a difference.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you make someone actually feel better,” Okonye says. “When you can see them go from one state to another and recognize that you were a part of literally changing this person’s life.”
A desire to care for others isn’t the only thing that Okonye, Akpotaire and Okorodudu have in common. All three have had role models of doctors or nurses in their families. And all three are the children of immigrants – from Nigeria.
Okorodudu says this means that the group of black men who applied to medical school last year is very different from the group in 1978.
“In 1978, those people we’re looking at, a lot of them were probably black American males” whose families had been in this country for generations, he says. Today’s black med school students may be more recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean.
“So if we broke it down that way, that factoid is actually even more alarming.”
The AAMC study lists several suggestions on how to rebuild the black male doctor pipeline. Among them: Create more mentoring programs, invest in education at K-12 public schools, increase financial aid options, and convince medical schools to put less emphasis on standardized tests scores like the MCATs.
Okorodudu is trying to help with an online service called DiverseMedicine where users can connect with mentors on chat or video.
Other strategies can be much simpler, he says: Like letting kids more kids see a black man in a white coat.
This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes KERA, NPR and Kaiser Health News.