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The Arts and Medicine
October 10, 2017

Black Women in Medicine—A Documentary

Author Affiliations
  • 1Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia
JAMA. 2017;318(14):1306-1307. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11551

The ambient noise of Match Day celebration fills a brightly lit room at Albany Medical College. Amidst the laughter and cheers, a young woman with an espresso-colored complexion is tucked alone in the shadows with her back pressed against the cinder block wall. Her hand is trembling as she studies the lone piece of paper in her hand. Sweeping back her long, dark braids as they fall before her eyes, she lets it all sink in.

Congratulations, you have matched!

A smile erupts across her face and then she closes her eyes. Patting tears with a tattered piece of tissue, she nods slowly and exhales. Antonia Francis, a fourth-year medical student and woman of color, just took one pivotal step closer to becoming Dr Antonia Francis, obstetrician/gynecologist. This is a big deal.

Francis is just one of several accomplished African American women chronicled in the independent feature film Black Women in Medicine, written and directed by filmmaker Crystal R. Emery. Emery herself has navigated health care systems for much of her life, managing two chronic diseases as a quadriplegic. She has become a leading voice on the intersection between race, gender, and disability, using what she has gleaned through personal experience to create a movement to help increase the number of black physicians in the United States from 4.5% in 2016 to 7% by 2030.

Black Women in Medicine

Image courtesy of URU The Right To Be Inc

At first glance the movie seems to move in a predictable direction—a documentary about underrepresented minority women medical students and physicians and the stories of how they beat the odds, an inspiration for those in environments with few role models. But the film, by weaving between and together the lives of women physicians of various ages and stages of their journey in medicine, humanizes them and welcomes viewers of all backgrounds into the celebration of their accomplishments.

We meet Dr Claudia Thomas, the first African American female orthopedic surgeon, and learn that she was the lone woman of color in her medical school class at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s. We are introduced to Dr Velma Scantlebury, the first African American woman transplant surgeon, who was without a single minority female counterpart during her surgical training. These firsts might suggest that the narrative of African American women in medicine began in the last 50 years. But we also learn about Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first black woman to graduate from a US medical school at New England Female Medical College in 1864. Thomas and Scantlebury are no doubt trailblazers, but Crumpler’s 19th-century story, which Emery brilliantly folds into this documentary, makes clear that the history of black women in US medicine started well before the modern civil rights era.

As a black female academic internist for the past 20 years, I relate to the experiences described by the women in Emery’s film, which resonate with those in my own life and echo what I hear day-to-day from the minority students and residents with whom I work. In 2013, one of my medical student advisees entered the room of a patient while on her surgical rotation. Dressed identically to other team members in hospital-issue scrubs and a white coat, the only thing that set her apart was her brown skin, Afrocentric hairstyle, and sex. When the team approached the bedside to view a postoperative surgical wound, the patient sat up in bed, looked straight at my student, and nudged her finished lunch tray on the rolling table toward her. “I didn’t have much of an appetite. You can take this tray away, honey,” she said directly to my student as the team looked on. And though the student described the patient as appearing neither rude nor contentious, it was clear that, even in 2013, this young black woman being a medical student or physician wasn’t even a consideration for this patient. After an awkward pause, no one made the correction. The student finally spoke. “I’m not from food services,” she whispered. “I’m a medical student on the team taking care of you.” I can still hear her sobbing into her cell phone while telling me about it in a lonely stairwell.

Dr Jennifer Ellis, cardiac surgeon

Image courtesy of URU The Right To Be Inc

This unfortunately is still a common occurrence for black female physicians and is referenced more than once in Black Women in Medicine. Dr Jennifer Ellis, a cardiothoracic surgeon and second-generation black physician, tells of experiences with both patients and colleagues assuming she isn’t the surgeon. Though shared lightheartedly, Ellis’ perspective, like that of my aforementioned student, shines a light on a still-prevalent notion of what a surgeon—or any doctor for that matter—looks like.

Also featured in the film is the first black female US surgeon general, Dr Joycelyn Elders, who shared her testimony of never having seen any physician before attending college. Dr Elders then stares into the camera and states emphatically, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Interestingly, her story says otherwise. The triumphant tales of trailblazers like Elders and others in this film prove that it is indeed possible to eventually “be what you can’t see,” though it may be more difficult to both attain and maintain.

One of the most powerful takeaway points of this movie is that there is still work to be done. “We all must challenge the status quo by replacing the false and debasing historical narrative regarding race, ethnicity, and gender with positive, empowering images of real women making a difference,” Emery has said. “My goal with Black Women in Medicine is to illuminate the issues and inspire a new generation of women of color to become doctors, as well as to help build a legacy for increasing access to health care in minority communities across the United States.” Diversity recruitment and retention in medical schools is a critical step to achieve this goal. Early exposure of minority youth to African American women physicians through structured programs is another potential mechanism to show a new generation that this career goal is attainable. With these ideas in mind, Emery joined with others to launch Changing the Face of STEM, a national initiative designed to grow the number of black scientists, engineers, and physicians in the United States.

These inspiring true stories should be shown not only to underrepresented minorities in environments low on physician role models but also to broader audiences. Hearing the testimonies of black women physicians ranging from the newly minted to the very seasoned normalizes their accomplishments and honors their place in history. Their unique paths underscore that there isn’t a single story for any black woman in medicine. From the child of West Indian immigrants attending an Ivy League medical school, to the teen mother who beat the odds to become an anesthesiologist, to the young girl turned surgeon inspired by her penchant for sewing clothes, these women are as different as they are accomplished. That’s important for anyone to see—regardless of race or socioeconomic level.

Although the stories in Black Women in Medicine will provide an inspiring visual blueprint of opportunities in the medical field to young women of color, an even greater goal would be for the movie to broaden the view of the physician workforce for everyone. The women featured in the documentary are living proof that lofty goals are attainable. But regardless of their—our—accomplishments as black female physicians, until more people see stereotypes revised through the arts and in their daily lives we can’t be to them what they can’t or won’t see, even when we’re dressed the part, standing in the lead role, and wearing a badge that identifies exactly who we are.

Some piece of me believes that Antonia Francis understood that the piece of paper in her hand on Match Day symbolized far more than her dreams of being an obstetrician. Her accomplishments represent another tiny stroke on the giant canvas of American possibility: a young, gifted, and black female physician standing as a living answer to poet Langston Hughes’ longing question of what happens to a dream deferred.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Kimberly D. Manning, MD, Emory University School of Medicine, 49 Jesse Hill Jr Dr SE, Atlanta, GA 30303 (kdmanni@emory.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The author has completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.