The impact of African Americans on the medical field

On a recent Saturday, more than 700 people flooded a Denver Black church for their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Surveys show African-Americans are more hesitant than others in the population about getting vaccines.

“We’ve done a lot of work to educate people in the community, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Dr. Terri Richardson with Colorado Black Health Collective, which helped stage the event.

She said Black doctors and nurses like her help ease the concerns of a group that’s long been distrustful of the medical profession.

“We’re pro Covid vaccine because we think our people need to hear that explicitly stated from health professionals,” Richardson said.

Professionals like members of the Sampson family, six of whom went into the medical field.

“He force inspired us, he basically said this is what we’re going to do,” said Dr. Alan Sampson, an ophthalmologist, referring to an elder sibling who along with his parents sent the Sampson children a powerful message:

“I don’t care if you’re a giraffe or an elephant, if you can go to school you can become anything you want to be,” said Dr. Carlton Sampson, an anesthesiologist, quoting them.

The role of Blacks in medicine stretches back centuries. The slave who saved countless lives during a smallpox epidemic. The first doctor to perform heart surgery. A blood transfusion pioneer. And yet:

“The African-American community, like most minority communities, are underserved by physicians, particularly physicians of color,” said Mike Mansfield, an instructor who teaches African-American studies at Colorado State University. 

He was referring to statistics that show Blacks made up just 2.6 percent of doctors in 2019 and 7 percent of students enrolled in medical school in 2020, prompting the question:

“Where are my African-Americans, where did they go?” said Renee Winkfield, a family nurse practitioner.

The Sampsons say the civil rights era back in the 1950’s and 60’s saw a greater emphasis on academics in the African-American community. They fear that momentum has been lost in recent decades.

“The younger generation, these kids are floundering in terms of what to do, having very few role models,” said Dr. Vernetta Johnson, an anesthesiologist.

“Young African American girls are told that they can’t go into science, that’s not a path they should take,” Winkfield said.

The saying ’it’s hard to be what you can’t imagine’ may apply here.

“There is discouragement from attempting things that are difficult,” Dr. Carlton Sampson said. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.”

That was something Dr. Justina Ford understood and lived. The first Black licensed female physician in Colorado was denied membership to the American Medical Society but still delivered 7,000 babies during her 50-year-long career.

“Sometimes her patients couldn’t pay the bills, sometimes we wonder how in the world she was able to afford to live,” said Terri Gentry with the Black American West Museum who has studied Ford. 

She said this trailblazer who was committed to service proved to be more the exception than the rule when it came to Blacks in medicine.

“It seems like there continues to be other barriers and political issues that want to interfere with that so we still have a long way to go,” Gentry said.

“The ambition is there, it’s just can we ever overcome the structural barriers to get to that point,” Mansfield said.

Barriers like the cost of medical education. The Sampsons believe today’s racial justice movement has actually lit a fire under older generations.

“We have an opportunity to influence younger minorities coming behind us and that is our goal and objective,” said Arlene Johnson, a family nurse practitioner. 

“We should understand that we have to do more, be more to get where we want to go to have a future for our grandchildren.” Dr. Vernetta Johnson added.

Studies show Black patients with Black medical providers have better health outcomes.

“They know we have the same lived experience of being Black in America, that’s very important,” Richardson said.

These days, that trust, and the shots that are administered as a result, could be life-saving. 

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