The four historically Black medical schools are part of the answer as U.S. healthcare reckons with racism and inequity. They are expanding and receiving record levels of donations.
The twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice outrage sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor convulsed the country last year. While COVID-19 was killing Black Americans at three times the rate of Whites, African Americans and others protested unjustified killings of Black people by police.
The nation’s four historically Black medical schools have labored throughout their existences to address racial disparities in healthcare and garner respect and recognition. Now, though, the 2020 crises and fresh awareness of how Black Americans historically have been mistreated by the healthcare establishment have resulted in large donations to the medical schools, seeding some hope for breakthroughs in narrowing disparities and training more Black physicians.
The money started to flow in September when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $100 million gift to be distributed for scholarships for current students at the four historically Black medical schools: Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee; Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU) in Los Angeles.
The gift has created momentum. Morehouse recently announced it is joining up with CommonSpirit Health, one of the country’s largest health systems, in a 10-year, $100 million deal to train more Black doctors. Morehouse plans to establish five new regional medical school campuses as well as graduate medical education programs in at least 10 markets in partnership with CommonSpirit. Meanwhile, Meharry and Morehouse are seeking to double enrollments. All four medical schools report that they are experiencing an upswing in donations.
“I think writ large what’s happening is there’s an epiphany happening among major organizations, corporations and foundations to recognize that the health disparities we’re witnessing — the racial disparities, the bias and all of that — need to be addressed if our whole society is going to advance forward as we’d like it to,” says James E.K. Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of Meharry.
The leaders of the four medical schools hope the infusion of funds will increase the number of Black doctors. But the goal goes beyond that. By training more Black doctors, they hope to influence the quality of care received by the African American community. Research has shown that Black patients fare better, on average, when treated by a Black doctor than by a White one. Other research has identified race-based misconceptions. For example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2016 found that half of White medical students believed that Black patients have higher pain tolerance than White patients.
“Clearly we know that the issues of health disparities are not new,” says Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., FACOG, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine. “What COVID-19 has done is allowed us to pull back the curtain to see these inequities and their impact on underserved communities, particularly the Black and brown community. When you add the number of social injustice events that we saw, you had the opportunity for people actually to see it in real time because many of them were on pause from their daily distractions.”
Sources of mistrust
The Bloomberg donation is called the Greenwood Initiative, a reference to the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1921, White residents massacred 300 Black residents of Greenwood, which was nicknamed the Black Wall Street because of the number of Black-owned businesses there.
There is no single source of Black mistrust of White doctors and nurses, although the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” looms large. For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study of 600 Black men, 400 of whom had syphilis that was intentionally not treated. Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” brought attention to the story of Lacks, an African American woman whose cancerous cells were used without her consent to create the HeLa cell line. Black women were sterilized without their consent during the mid-20th century; the procedures were nicknamed the “Mississippi appendectomy.”
“There’s a legacy, a foundation for distrust,” says David M. Carlisle, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of CDU. “When you talk to people about why they have vaccine hesitancy, this is very often cited. They want to make sure that the health system has their best interests at heart, and they’re not sure that’s necessarily the case.”
The legacy of racism is also evident in the racial makeup of the medical community itself. More than 100 years ago, the Carnegie Foundation and the American Medical Association tasked education specialist Abraham Flexner to standardize medical education and anchor it in science. Flexner’s 1910 report resulted in the closing of numerous medical schools, including five of the seven existing Black medical schools. Howard and Meharry were the lone survivors.
Until 2008, only about 2.5% of American doctors were African American; now that proportion is 5%, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The relative scarcity of Black physicians has persisted in unexpected places, such as Detroit, a city that is now 79% Black. In 2015, a task force found that Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit accepted only five African American and two Hispanic students out of a class of 290. It nearly went on accreditation probation for that lack of diversity and other issues but quickly increased those numbers.
“This is not to cast all of them in the same light, but White medical schools have got to do a better job of diversifying their classes,” Hildreth says. “Even if Meharry, Morehouse, Drew and Howard all doubled our class size and all of our kids were Black — and they’re not — that still would not move the dial very much. We’ve got to have the other schools doing their part.”
Black men are particularly absent from the physician ranks. White male doctors outnumber Black male doctors 15 to 1. In 2020-2021, only one-third of African American medical school applicants were male, according to the AAMC. School officials hope the new funding coming into their institutions can help them address the issue.
Carlisle called the donations from Bloomberg and others “transformational.” Black students typically have higher debt than Whites because many come from lower-income families. Now every student at the historically Black medical schools not already covered by a full scholarship will receive a $100,000 pay down, $25,000 per school year. “It’s the kind of paradigm-changing gift that really sets the bar,” Carlisle says.
For Morehouse School of Medicine, the Bloomberg donation helped create the momentum to team up the with CommonSpirit, which will transform the reach of the school. “The urgency definitely became more real with the pandemic,” says Montgomery Rice.
Howard University College of Medicine’s $32.8 million share of the Bloomberg gift is the largest donation the school has ever received. Officials there are looking forward to how the money can help increase the number of Black doctors. “Healthcare disparities exist for myriad reasons related to systemic issues, not the least of which is the dearth of Black doctors,” Wayne A.I. Frederick, M.D., MBA, FACS, president of Howard University, said in a statement. He continued, “Black doctors with cultural competency are a major part of the solution, but their path is often hampered by a compromised financial situation.”
Historically Black med schools step forward
The pandemic has galvanized the historically Black medical schools into action. They have played a role in community outreach, advocacy and publicity to spur higher testing and vaccine rates in the Black community. Frederick, Montgomery Rice, Carlisle and Hildreth co-wrote an opinion piece published in the New York Times in September that argued for the importance of diversity among the COVID-19 vaccine study volunteers. “As with all drug trials, the impact of medication can differ significantly, depending on the genetic makeup of the population. This is even more so with vaccines that depend on altering the immune system,” they wrote.
Carlisle says his school has learned the hard way about the difficulties in getting resources to low-income communities, in which many frontline workers could not social distance and wound up bringing the infection home with them. Last summer, CDU collaborated with county officials and the Los Angeles fire department on setting up and operating drive-through testing sites. But many in the community don’t have cars and some don’t have internet access, meaning they couldn’t schedule appointments. So CDU sent some of its students to neighborhood locations such as malls to try to get individuals tested for COVID-19, Carlisle says. Such outreach helped reduce hesitancy not only among African Americans, but also immigrants who have language barriers and often fear government.
The four historically Black medical schools and other medical organizations have organized several town halls to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy and distrust in the healthcare system, Montgomery Rice says. The events have drawn online crowds ranging from 8,000 to 20,000.
In December 2020, she and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, M.D., got vaccinated live on the network broadcast. And in January, Morehouse hosted an event where former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, former HHS Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron were vaccinated. (Aaron died shortly after from a non-COVID-19-related illness). Throughout the month, the school held “Vaccination Saturdays” for anyone 75 or older. Montgomery Rice says the school had administered 1,800 vaccinations as of late February. It went from having to search for people willing to get vaccinated to a waiting list of 6,000. “We believe we’ve moved the conversation from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine acceptance,” she says.
Hildreth is encouraged by what he sees from the Biden administration, which appointed him to its COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and made equitable vaccine distribution a focus.
“From my perspective, it all comes back to two things: structural racism and implicit bias,” Hildreth says. “We find a way to deal with those things, these problems would take care of themselves.”
Larry Hanover is a freelance writer in southern New Jersey.