Growing up, Cedrek McFadden never knew a physician who looked like him.
African-American males were scarce in medicine.
Little has changed since then.
Forty years ago, 578 black men were attending U.S. medical schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. That number was 515 in 2014.
While African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population nationally, they account for only 4 percent of all physicians, the AAMC reports.
This is a situation that McFadden, now a colorectal surgeon at Greenville Health System, and some of his colleagues are determined to remedy.
“Several weeks ago, there was a single tweet that went out from a medical student that talked about the low numbers. It’s a common story that black males represent less than 2 percent of the medical class, and the folks I started talking to ... had similar stories,” he told The Greenville News.
“We are all united in wanting to do something that could address this fact,” he added. “So we repurposed this hashtag #blackmeninmedicine and launched a recent push across social media.”
McFadden and his friends want to bring awareness to the issue in hopes of encouraging young black boys and men to consider a career in medicine.
Reasons for the low numbers are complex.
The cost of a medical education is one factor, he said.
An AAMC report found that while 31 percent of all 2014 medical school graduates had debt of at least $200,000, 42 percent of black male graduates owed that much. And the mean debt for all medical school graduates was $178,000.
Educational readiness is another factor. A disproportionate number of young black men are in underperforming K-12 public schools, according to the report.
McFadden also wonders whether there could be fewer black students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs or taking aggressive courses in high school.
“Even going back to the third grade, are students getting the same quality education? Are they being prepared with academic rigor to ... tackle the challenges of advanced classwork?” he asked. “There are many layers to this. And it goes back to us ... addressing them as early as possible.”
Other barriers include a limited knowledge about the career path, other careers that require less education, bias and a lack of mentors.
Another issue that McFadden and his colleagues are trying to address is the dearth of role models. Along with the few African-American male doctors in practice, just 2 percent of the faculty at medical schools are black men.
“For some people who have never seen someone who looks like them in that profession, it’s hard to visualize themselves in that profession,” he said.
‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’
The University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville is working to increase diversity among medical students by providing scholarships for underrepresented minorities.
In addition, GHS has pipeline programs like Medical Experience, or MedEx, Academy to promote health care careers among high school and college students.
Lots of great things are happening in Greenville, at historically black colleges and universities and elsewhere to build pipelines to prepare and recruit diverse students, McFadden said.
But, he said, students need to recognize the programs are available and be encouraged to apply.
So it’s hoped the social media effort will help motivate young black men to pursue medical careers by providing information about those careers, by serving as role models and by highlighting the achievements of black men in medicine, he said. It’s also hoped that once they become doctors, they will care for communities of color.
McFadden and others also have been raising awareness by speaking in their communities, churches and schools.
“We think at this point that we made progress as it relates to education and representation. But that has not translated into medicine,” he said.
“This may be the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “But in order to rectify the problem, we have to recognize that the problem exists. We want to build a more supportive community. We can all do something.”