Black or ‘Other’? Doctors may be relying on race to make decisions about your health | CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN’s “History Refocused” series features surprising and personal stories from America’s past to bring depth to conflicts still raging today.



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When she first learned about race correction, Naomi Nkinsi was one of five Black medical students in her class at the University of Washington.

Nkinsi remembers the professor talking about an equation doctors use to measure kidney function. The professor said eGFR equations adjust for several variables, including the patient’s age, sex and race. When it comes to race, doctors have only two options: Black or “Other.”

Nkinsi was dumbfounded.

“It was really shocking to me,” says Nkinsi, now a third-year medical and masters of public health student, “to come into school and see that not only is there interpersonal racism between patients and physicians … there’s actually racism built into the very algorithms that we use.”

At the heart of a controversy brewing in America’s hospitals is a simple belief, medical students say: Math shouldn’t be racist.

The argument over race correction has raised questions about the scientific data doctors rely on to treat people of color. It’s attracted the attention of Congress and led to a big lawsuit against the NFL.

What happens next could affect how millions of Americans are treated.

Carolyn Roberts, a historian of medicine and science at Yale University, says slavery and the American medical system were in a codependent relationship for much of the 19th century and well into the 20th.

“They relied on one another to thrive,” Roberts says.

It was common to test experimental treatments first on Black people so they could be given to White people once proven safe. But when the goal was justifying slavery, doctors published articles alleging substantive physical differences between White and Black bodies — like Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s claim in 1851 that Black people have weaker lungs, which is why grueling work in the fields was essential (his words) to their progress.

The effects of Cartwright’s falsehood, and others like it, linger today.

In 2016, researchers asked White medical students and residents about 15 alleged differences between Black and White bodies. Forty percent of first-year medical students and 25% of residents said they believed Black people have thicker skin, and 7% of all students and residents surveyed said Black people have less sensitive nerve endings. The doctors-in-training who believed these myths — and they are myths — were less likely to prescribe adequate pain medication to Black patients.

To fight this kind of bias, hospitals urge doctors to rely on objective measures of health. Scientific equations tell physicians everything from how well your kidneys are working to whether or not you should have a natural birth after a C-section. They predict your risk of dying during heart surgery, evaluate brain damage and measure your lung capacity.

But what if these equations are also racially biased?

Race correction is the use of a patient’s race in a scientific equation that can influence how they are treated. In other words, some diagnostic algorithms and risk predictor tools adjust or “correct” their results based on a person’s race.

The New England Journal of Medicine article “Hidden in Plain Sight” includes a partial list of 13 medical equations that use race correction. Take the Vaginal Birth After Cesarean calculator, for example. Doctors use this calculator to predict the likelihood of a successful vaginal delivery after a prior C-section. If you are Black or Hispanic, your score is adjusted to show a lower chance of success. That means your doctor is more likely to encourage another C-section, which could put you at risk for blood loss, infection and a longer recovery period.

Cartwright, the racist doctor from the 1800s, also developed his own version of a tool called the spirometer to measure lung capacity. Doctors still use spirometers today, and most include a race correction for Black patients to account for their supposedly shallower breaths.

Turns out, second-year medical student Carina Seah wryly told CNN, math is as racist as the people who make it.

The biggest problem with using race in medicine? Race isn’t a biological category. It’s a social one.

“It’s based on this idea that human beings are naturally divided into these big groups called races,” says Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has made challenging race correction in medicine her life’s work. “But that’s not what race is. Race is a completely invented social category. The very idea that human beings are divided into races is a made-up idea.”

Ancestry is biological. Where we come from — or more accurately, who we come from — impacts our DNA. But a patient’s skin color isn’t always an accurate reflection of their ancestry.

Look at Tiger Woods, Roberts says. Woods coined the term “Cablinasian” to describe his mix of Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian ancestries. But to many Americans, he’s Black.

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“You can be half Black and half White in this country and you are Black,” says Seah, who is getting her medical degree and a PhD in genetics and genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “You can be a quarter Black in this country — if you have dark skin, you are Black.”

So it can be misleading, Seah says, even dangerous, for doctors to judge a patient’s ancestry by glancing at their skin. A patient with a White mother and Black father could have a genetic mutation that typically presents in patients of European ancestry, Seah says, but a doctor may not think to test for it if they only see Black skin.

“You have to ask, how Black is Black enough?” Nkinsi asks. And there’s another problem, she says, with using a social construct like race in medicine. “It also puts the blame on the patient, and it puts the blame on the race itself. Like being Black is inherently the cause of these diseases.”

Naomi Nkinsi is a third-year medical and masters of public health student at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has been advocating for the removal of race correction in medicine.

After she learned about the eGFR equation in 2018, Nkinsi began asking questions about race correction. She wasn’t alone — on social media she found other students struggling with the use of race in medicine. In the spring of 2020, following a first-year physiology lecture, Seah joined the conversation. But the medical profession is nothing if not hierarchical; Nkinsi and Seah say students are encouraged to defer to doctors who have been practicing for decades.

Then on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

His death and the growing momentum around Black Lives Matter helped ignite what Dr. Darshali A. Vyas calls an “overdue reckoning” in the medical community around race and race correction. A few institutions had already taken steps to remove race from the eGFR equation. Students across the country demanded more, and hospitals began to listen.

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Four days after Floyd’s death, the University of Washington announced it was removing race correction from the eGFR equation. In June, the Boston-based hospital system Mass General Brigham where Vyas is a second-year Internal Medicine resident followed suit. Seah and a fellow student at Mount Sinai, Paloma Orozco Scott, started an online petition and collected over 1600 signatures asking their hospital to do the same.

Studies show removing race from the eGFR equation will change how patients at those hospitals are treated. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Penn Medicine estimated up to one in every three Black patients with kidney disease would have been reclassified if the race multiplier wasn’t applied in earlier calculations, with a quarter going from stage 3 to stage 4 CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease).

That reclassification is good and bad, says Dr. Neil Powe, chief of medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Black patients newly diagnosed with kidney disease will be able to see specialists who can devise better treatment plans. And more patients will be placed on kidney transplant lists.

On the flip side, Powe says, more African Americans diagnosed with kidney disease means fewer who are eligible to donate kidneys, when there’s already a shortage. And a kidney disease diagnosis can change everything from a patient’s diabetes medication to their life insurance costs.

Dr. Neil Powe says by simply removing race from the eGFR equations,

Powe worries simply eliminating race from these equations is a knee-jerk response — one that may exacerbate health disparities instead of solve them. For too long, Powe says, doctors had to fight for diversity in medical studies.

The most recent eGFR equation, known as the CKD-EPI equation, was developed using data pooled from 26 studies, which included almost 3,000 patients who self-identified as Black. Researchers found the equation they were developing was more accurate for Black patients when it was adjusted by a factor of about 1.2. They didn’t determine exactly what was causing the difference in Black patients, but their conclusion is supported by other research that links Black race and African ancestry with higher levels of creatinine, a waste product filtered by the kidneys.

Put simply: In the eGFR equation, researchers used race as a substitute for an unknown factor because they think that factor is more common in people of African descent.

Last August, Vyas co-authored the “Hidden in Plain Sight” article about race correction. Vyas says most of the equations she wrote about were developed in a similar way to the eGFR formula: Researchers found Black people were more or less likely to have certain outcomes and decided race was worth including in the final equation, often without knowing the real cause of the link.

“When you go back to the original studies that validated (these equations), a lot of them did not provide any sort of rationale for why they include race, which I think is appalling.” That’s what’s most concerning, Vyas says – “how willing we are to believe that race is relevant in these ways.”

Vyas is clear she isn’t calling for race-blind medicine. Physicians cannot ignore structural racism, she says, and the impact it has on patients’ health.

Powe has been studying the racial disparities in kidney disease for more than 30 years. He can spout the statistics easily: Black people are three times more likely to suffer from kidney failure, and make up more than 35% of patients on dialysis in the US. The eGFR equation, he says, did not cause these disparities — they existed long before the formula.

“We want to cure disparities, let’s go after the things that really matter, some of which may be racist,” he says. “But to put all our stock and think that the equation is causing this is just wrong because it didn’t create those.”

In discussions about removing race correction, Powe likes to pose a question: Instead of normalizing to the “Other” group in the eGFR equation, as many of these hospitals are doing, why don’t we give everyone the value assigned to Black people? By ignoring the differences researchers saw, he says, “You’re taking the data on African Americans, and you’re throwing it in the trash.”

Powe is co-chair of a joint task force set up by the National Kidney Foundation and the American Society of Nephrology to look at the use of race in eGFR equations. The leaders of both organizations have publicly stated race should not be included in equations used to estimate kidney function. On April 9, the task force released an interim report that outlined the challenges in identifying and implementing a new equation that’s representative of all groups. The group is expected to issue its final recommendations for hospitals this summer.

Race correction is used to assess the kidneys and the lungs. What about the brain?

In 2013, the NFL settled a class-action lawsuit brought by thousands of former players and their families that accused the league of concealing what it knew about the dangers of concussions. The NFL agreed to pay $765 million, without admitting fault, to fund medical exams and compensate players for concussion-related health issues, among other things. Then in 2020, two retired players sued the NFL for allegedly discriminating against Black players who submitted claims in that settlement.

01 race correction Kevin Henry Najeh Davenport SPLIT

The players, Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry, said the NFL race-corrected their neurological exams, which prevented them from being compensated.

According to court documents, former NFL players being evaluated for neurocognitive impairment were assumed to have started with worse cognitive function if they were Black. So if a Black player and a White player received the exact same scores on a battery of thinking and memory tests, the Black player would appear to have suffered less impairment. And therefore, the lawsuit stated, would be less likely to qualify for a payout.

Race correction is common in neuropsychology using something called Heaton norms, says Katherine Possin, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco. Heaton norms are essentially benchmark average scores on cognitive tests.

Here’s how it works: To measure the impact of a concussion (or multiple concussions over time), doctors compare how well the patient’s brain works now to how well it worked before.

“The best way to get that baseline was to test you 10 years ago, but that’s not something we obviously have for many people,” Possin says. So doctors estimate your “before” abilities using an average score from a group of healthy individuals, and adjust that score for demographic factors known to affect brain function, like your age.

Heaton norms adjust for race, Possin says, because race has been linked in studies to lower cognitive scores. To be clear, that’s not because of any biological differences in Black and White brains, she says; it’s because of social factors like education and poverty that can impact cognitive development. And this is where the big problem lies.

In early March, a judge in Pennsylvania dismissed the players’ lawsuit and ordered a mediator to address concerns about how race correction was being used. In a statement to CNN, the NFL said there is no merit to the players’ claim of discrimination, but it is committed to helping find alternative testing techniques that do not employ race-based norms.

The NFL case, Possin wrote in JAMA, has “exposed a major weakness in the field of neuropsychology: the use of race-adjusted norms as a crude proxy for lifelong social experience.”

This happens in nearly every field of medicine. Race is not only used as a poor substitute for genetics and ancestry, it’s used as a substitute for access to health care, or lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, socioeconomic status and education. It’s no secret that racial disparities exist in all of these. But there’s a danger in using race to talk about them, Yale historian Carolyn Roberts says.

We know, for example, that Black Americans have been disproportionally affected by Covid-19. But it’s not because Black bodies respond differently to the virus. It’s because, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted, a disproportionate number of Black people have jobs that put them at higher risk and have less access to quality health care. “What are we making scientific and biological when it actually isn’t?” Roberts asks.

Vyas says using race as a proxy for these disparities in clinical algorithms can also create a vicious cycle.

“There’s a risk there, we argue, of simply building these into the system and almost accepting them as fact instead of focusing on really addressing the root causes,” Vyas says. “If we systematize these existing disparities … we risk ensuring that these trends will simply continue.”

Nearly everyone on both sides of the race correction controversy agrees that race isn’t an accurate, biological measure. Yet doctors and researchers continue to use it as a substitute. Math shouldn’t be racist, Nkinsi says, and it shouldn’t be lazy.

“We’re saying that we know that this race-based medicine is wrong, but we’re going to keep doing it because we simply don’t have the will or the imagination or the creativity to think of something better,” Nkinsi says. “That is a slap in the face.”

Shortly after Vyas’ article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the House Ways and Means Committee sent letters to several professional medical societies requesting information on the misuse of race in clinical algorithms. In response to the lawmakers’ request, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is also gathering information on the use of race-based algorithms in medicine. Recently, a note appeared on the Maternal Fetal Medicine Units Network’s website for the Vaginal Birth After Cesarean equation — a new calculator that doesn’t include race and ethnicity is being developed.

Dorothy Roberts is excited to see change on the horizon. But she’s also a bit frustrated. The harm caused by race correction is something she’s been trying to tell doctors about for years.

“I’ve taught so many audiences about the meaning of race and the history of racism in America and the audiences I get the most resistance from are doctors,” Roberts says. “They’re offended that there would be any suggestion that what they do is racist.”

Nkinsi and Seah both encountered opposition from colleagues in their fight to change the eGFR equation. Several doctors interviewed for this story argued the change in a race-corrected scores is so small, it wouldn’t change clinical decisions.

If that’s the case, Vyas wonders, why include race at all?

“It all comes from the desire for one to dominate another group and justify it,” says Roberts. “In the past, it was slavery, but the same kinds of justifications work today to explain away all the continued racial inequality that we see in America… It is mass incarceration. It’s huge gaps in health. It’s huge differences in income and wealth.”

It’s easier, she says, to believe these are innate biological differences than to address the structural racism that caused them.



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ADHD medication abuse in schools is a ‘wake-up call’ | CNN



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At some middle and high schools in the United States, 1 in 4 teens report they’ve abused prescription stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during the year prior, a new study found.

“This is the first national study to look at the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants by students in middle and high school, and we found a tremendous, wide range of misuse,” said lead author Sean Esteban McCabe, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“In some schools there was little to no misuse of stimulants, while in other schools more than 25% of students had used stimulants in nonmedical ways,” said McCabe, who is also a professor of nursing at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. “This study is a major wake-up call.”

Nonmedical uses of stimulants can include taking more than a normal dose to get high, or taking the medication with alcohol or other drugs to boost a high, prior studies have found.

Students also overuse medications or “use a pill that someone gave them due to a sense of stress around academics — they are trying to stay up late and study or finish papers,” said pediatrician Dr. Deepa Camenga, associate director of pediatric programs at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

“We know this is happening in colleges. A major takeaway of the new study is that misuse and sharing of stimulant prescription medications is happening in middle and high schools, not just college,” said Camenga, who was not involved with the study.

Published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open, the study analyzed data collected between 2005 and 2020 by Monitoring the Future, a federal survey that has measured drug and alcohol use among secondary school students nationwide each year since 1975.

In the data set used for this study, questionnaires were given to more than 230,000 teens in eighth, 10th and 12th grades in a nationally representative sample of 3,284 secondary schools.

Schools with the highest rates of teens using prescribed ADHD medications were about 36% more likely to have students misusing prescription stimulants during the past year, the study found. Schools with few to no students currently using such treatments had much less of an issue, but it didn’t disappear, McCabe said.

“We know that the two biggest sources are leftover medications, perhaps from family members such as siblings, and asking peers, who may attend other schools,” he said.

Schools in the suburbs in all regions of the United States except the Northeast had higher rates of teen misuse of ADHD medications, as did schools where typically one or more parent had a college degree, according to the study.

Schools with more White students and those who had medium levels of student binge drinking were also more likely to see teen abuse of stimulants.

On an individual level, students who said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days were four times as likely to abuse ADHD medications than teens who did not use weed, according to the analysis.

In addition, adolescents who said they used ADHD medications currently or in the past were about 2.5% more likely to have misused the stimulants when compared with peers who had never used stimulants, the study found.

“But these findings were not being driven solely by teens with ADHD misusing their medications,” McCabe said. “We still found a significant association, even when we excluded students who were never prescribed ADHD therapy.”

Data collection for the study was through 2020. Since then, new statistics show prescriptions for stimulants surged 10% during 2021 across most age groups. At the same time, there has been a nationwide shortage of Adderall, one of the most popular ADHD drugs, leaving many patients unable to fill or refill their prescriptions.

The stakes are high: Taking stimulant medications improperly over time can result in stimulant use disorder, which can lead to anxiety, depression, psychosis and seizures, experts say.

If overused or combined with alcohol or other drugs, there can be sudden health consequences. Side effects can include “paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and an irregular heartbeat, especially if stimulants are taken in large doses or in ways other than swallowing a pill,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Research has also shown people who misuse ADHD medications are highly likely to have multiple substance use disorders.

Abuse of stimulant drugs has grown over the past two decades, experts say, as more adolescents are diagnosed and prescribed those medications — studies have shown 1 in every 9 high school seniors report taking stimulant therapy for ADHD, McCabe said.

For children with ADHD who use their medications appropriately, stimulants can be effective treatment. They are “protective for the health of a child,” Camenga said. “Those adolescents diagnosed and treated correctly and monitored do very well — they have a lower risk of new mental health problems or new substance use disorders.”

The solution to the problem of stimulant misuse among middle and high school teens isn’t to limit use of the medications for the children who really need them, McCabe stressed.

“Instead, we need to look very long and hard at school strategies that are more or less effective in curbing stimulant medication misuse,” he said. “Parents can make sure the schools their kids attend have safe storage for medication and strict dispensing policies. And ask about prevalence of misuse — that data is available for every school.”

Families can also help by talking to their children about how to handle peers who approach them wanting a pill or two to party or pull an all-night study session, he added.

“You’d be surprised how many kids do not know what to say,” McCabe said. “Parents can role-play with their kids to give them options on what to say so they are ready when it happens.”

Parents and guardians should always store controlled medications in a lockbox, and should not be afraid to count pills and stay on top of early refills, he added.

“Finally, if parents suspect any type of misuse, they should contact their child’s prescriber right away,” McCabe said. “That child should be screened and assessed immediately.”

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Mental health struggles are driving more college students to consider dropping out, survey finds | CNN



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Isabel, a 20-year-old undergraduate student, is no stranger to hard work. She graduated high school a year early and spent most of 2021 keeping up with three jobs. But when she started college that fall, she felt like she was “sinking.”

She knew that she wasn’t feeling like herself that first semester: Her bubbly personality had dimmed, and she was crying lots more than she was used to.

It all came to a head during a Spanish exam. Isabel, who identifies as both Latina and Black, overheard a video that other students were watching about racism in her communities. Negative emotions swelled, and she had to walk out without finishing the test. She rushed back to her room, angry and upset, and broke her student card when hitting it on the door to get in.

“And I just started having a full-blown panic attack,” she said. “My mind was racing everywhere.”

Isabel says she begged her parents to let her stay on campus, but they insisted that she make the three-hour drive home, and she soon took a medical withdrawal.

A new survey shows that a significant number of college students struggle with their mental health, and a growing share have considered dropping out themselves.

Two out of 5 undergraduate students – including nearly half of female students – say they frequently experience emotional stress while attending college, according to a survey published Thursday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, a private independent organization focused on creating accessible opportunities for post-secondary learning. The survey was conducted in fall 2022, with responses from 12,000 adults who had a high school degree but had not yet completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

More than 40% of students currently enrolled in an undergraduate degree program had considered dropping out in the past six months, up from 34% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the survey found. Most cited emotional stress and personal mental health as the reason, far more often than others like financial considerations and difficulty of coursework.

Young adult years are a vulnerable time for mental health in general, and the significant changes that often come with attending college can be added stressors, experts say.

“About 75% of lifetime mental health problems will onset by the mid-20s, so that means that the college years are a very epidemiologically vulnerable time,” said Sarah K. Lipson, an assistant professor at Boston University and principal investigator with the Healthy Minds Network, a research organization focused on the mental health of adolescents and young adults.

“And then for many adolescents and young adults, the transition to college comes with newfound autonomy. They may be experiencing the first signs and symptoms of mental health problems while now in this new level of independence that also includes new independence over their decision-making as it relates to mental health.”

An estimated 1 in 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental illness, and young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are disproportionately affected. The share of college students reporting anxiety and depression has been growing for years, and it has only gotten worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An analysis of federal data by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that half of young adults ages 18 to 24 have reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023, compared with about a third of adults overall.

Mental health in college is critically important, experts say.

It’s “predictive of pretty much every long-term outcome that we care about, including their future economic earnings, workplace productivity, their future mental health and their future physical health, as well,” Lipson said.

And the need for support is urgent. About 1 in 7 college students said that they had suicidal ideation – even more than the year prior, according to a fall 2021 survey by the Healthy Minds Network.

Isabel knew that she was struggling, but it took a while to realize the extent of her mental health challenges.

“The number one thing I struggled with was feeling overwhelmed and like I had space to even remember to eat,” she said. “People were like, ‘You don’t know how to take care of yourself.’ But no – I had five papers due, and assignments, and I also had to work and go to [class] on top of that. And then I also had to find time to sleep. Most of the time, I was chugging an energy drink. And God forbid if you have a social life.”

For Isabel, as with many college students, thinking about or deciding to leave a degree program because of mental health challenges can often bring its own set of negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear and grief.

“For a lot of students, this isn’t what they saw their life looking like. This isn’t the timeline that they had for themselves,” said Julie Wolfson, director of outreach and research for the College ReEntry program at Fountain House, a nonprofit organization that works to support people with mental illness.

“They see their friends continuing on and becoming juniors and seniors, graduating and getting their first job. But they feel stuck and like they’re watching their life plan slipping away.”

It can create a sort of “shame spiral,” Lipson said.

But mental health professionals stress the importance of prioritizing personal needs over the status quo.

“There’s no shame in taking some time off,” said Marcus Hotaling, a psychologist at Union College and president of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors.

“Take a semester. Take a year. Get yourself better – whether it be through therapy or medication – and come back stronger, a better student, more focused and, more importantly, healthier.”

They also encourage higher education institutions to help ease this pressure by creating policies that simplify the process to return.

“When a student is trying to do the best thing for themselves, that should be celebrated and promoted. For a school to then put up a ton of barriers for them to come back, it makes students not want to seek help,” Wolfson said.

“I would hope that in the future, there could be policies and systems that are more welcoming to students who are trying to take care of themselves.”

Appropriately managing mental health is different for each person, and experts say a break from school isn’t the best solution for everyone.

Tracking progress through self-assessments of symptoms and gauges of functioning, like class attendance and keeping up with assignments, can help make that call, said Ryan Patel, chair of the American College Health Association’s mental health section and senior staff psychiatrist at The Ohio State University.

“If we’re making progress and you’re getting better, then it could make sense to think about continuing school,” he said. “But if you’re doing everything you can in your day-to-day life to improve your mental health and we’re not making progress, or things are getting worse despite best efforts, that’s where the differentiating point occurs, in my mind.”

Understanding the support system a student would have if they return home, including access to resources and treatment providers, is also a factor, he said.

For a while, experts say, it was a challenge to articulate the problem and build the case for broader attention to the mental health of college students. Now, the mental health of students is consistently cited as the most pressing issue among college presidents, according to a survey by the American Council on Education.

As the need for services increases, however, college counseling centers are struggling to meet demand – and the shortage of mental health professionals doesn’t stop at the edge of campus.

But colleges are uniquely positioned to surround students with a close network of support, experts say. Taking advantage of that structure needs buy-in to create a broader “community of care.”

“Colleges have an educational mission, and I would make the argument that spreads to education about health and safety,” Hotaling said.

College faculty should be trained in recognizing immediate concerns or threats to a student’s safety, he said. But they should also understand that students can face a range of mental health challenges and know the appropriate resource to direct them to.

Isabel recently graduated from Fountain House’s College ReEntry program and is back at school – this time at university that’s a little closer to home, one that a close friend from high school also attends. It helps her to know that she has a strong friend group to support her and an academic program that supports her professional goals – to become an art curator.

Things are still challenging this time around, but she says she feels like she now has the right tools to cope.

“This foundation I am building is constantly in need of maintenance. There’s like a crack every day,” she said. “Back when I was trying to figure everything out, I feel like I was looking for a screwdriver when I needed a hammer. Now, it’s not that I know I can handle it – but I know that I have the healthy coping mechanisms and strategies and people to help. That gave me confidence and stamina to do it again.”

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Only 5.7% of US doctors are Black, and experts warn the shortage harms public health | CNN



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When being truly honest with herself, Seun Adebagbo says, she can describe what drove her to go to medical school in a single word: self-preservation.

Adebagbo, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Boston, said that as a child, she often saw tensions between certain aspects of Western medicine and beliefs within Nigerian culture. She yearned to have the expertise to bridge those worlds and help translate medical information while combating misinformation – for her loved ones and for herself.

“I wanted to go into medicine because I felt like, ‘Who better to mediate that tension than someone like me, who knows what it’s like to exist in both?’ ” said Adebagbo, 26, who graduated from Stanford University and is now a third-year medical school student in Massachusetts.

“The deeper I got into my medical education, the more I realized, if I’m in the system, I know how it works. I not only know the science, but I also know how the system works,” she said of how in many Black and brown communities, there can be limited access to care and resources within the medical system.

This has enabled Adebagbo to connect with patients of color in her rotations. She recognizes that their encounters with her are brief, she said, and so she tries to empower them to advocate for themselves in the health system.

“I know what to ask for on the patient side if I’m worried about something for myself. But then also, for my parents and my family,” Adebagbo said. “Because the way you have to move in the system as a Black person is very different, especially if you’re coming from a background where you don’t have family members that are doctors, you don’t know anyone in your periphery that went into medicine.”

Seun Adebagbo presenting her poster presentation as a first author at an international symposium and annual meeting of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Only about 5.7% of physicians in the United States identify as Black or African American, according to the the latest data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. This statistic does not reflect the communities they serve, as an estimated 12% of the US population is Black or African American.

And while the proportion of Black physicians in the US has risen over the past 120 years, some research shows, it’s still extremely low.

One reason why the percentage of US doctors who are Black remains far below that of the US population that is Black can be traced to how Black people have been “historically excluded from medicine” and the “institutional and systemic racism in our society,” said Michael Dill, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ director of workforce studies.

“And it occurs over the course of what I think of as the trajectory to becoming a physician,” Dill said. At young ages, exposure to the sciences, science education resources, mentors and role models all make it more likely that a child could become a doctor – but such exposures and resources sometimes are disproportionately not as accessible in the Black community.

“We can improve our admissions to medical school, make them more holistic, try to remove bias from that, but that’s still not going to solve the problem,” Dill said.

“We need to look at which schools produce the most medical students and figure out how we improve the representation of Black students in those schools,” he said. “That requires going back to pre-college – high school, middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, pre-K – we need to do better in all of those places in order to elevate the overall trajectory to becoming a physician and make it more likely that we will get more Black doctors in the long run.”

Many US medical schools have a history of not admitting non-Whites. The first Black American to hold a medical degree, Dr. James McCune Smith, had to enroll at the University of Glasgow Medical School in Scotland.

Smith received his MD in 1837, returned to New York City and went on to become the first Black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States, and to be published in US medical journals.

A few decades later, in 1900, 1.3% of physicians were Black, compared with 11.6% of the US population, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2021.

Around that time, seven medical schools were established specifically for Black students between 1868 and 1904, according to Duke University’s Medical Center Library & Archives. But by 1923, only two of those schools remained: Howard University Medical School in Washington and Meharry Medical School in Nashville.

In 1940, only 2.8% of physicians were Black, but 9.7% of the US population was Black; by 2018, 5.4% of physicians were Black, but 12.8% of the population was Black.

“The more surprising thing to me was for Black men,” said Dr. Dan Ly, an author of the study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Data on only Black men who were physicians over the years showed that they represented 1.3% of the physician workforce in 1900, “because all physicians were pretty much men in the past,” Ly said. Black men represented 2.7% of the physician workforce in 1940 and 2.6% in 2018.

“That’s 80 years of no improvement,” Ly said. “So the increase in the percent of physicians who were Black over the past 80 years has been the entrance of Black women in the physician workforce.”

Over more than four decades between 1978 and 2019, the proportion of medical school enrollees who identify as Black, Hispanic or members of other underrepresented groups has stayed “well below” the proportions that each group represented in the general US population, according to a 2021 report in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Diversity in some medical schools also was affected in states with bans on affirmative action programs, according to a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine. That study included data on 21 public medical schools across eight states with affirmative action bans from 1985 to 2019: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington.

The study found that the percentage of enrolled students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups was on average about 15% in the year before the bans were implemented but fell more than a third by five years after the bans.

Now, the United States is reckoning with medicine’s history of racism.

In 2008, the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization of physicians, issued an apology for its history of discriminatory policies toward Black doctors, including those that effectively restricted the association’s membership to Whites. In 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a “serious public health threat.”

One encouraging datapoint says that the number of Black or African American first-year medical school students increased 21% between the academic years of 2020 and 2021, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, which Dill said shows promise for the future.

“Does the fact that it’s higher in medical school mean that eventually we will have a higher percentage of physicians who are Black? The answer is yes,” he said.

“We will see the change occur slowly over time,” he said. “So, that means the percentage of the youngest physicians that are Black will grow appreciably, but the percentage of all physicians who are Black will rise much more slowly, since new physicians are only a small percentage of the entire workforce.”

But some medical school students could leave their career track along the way. A paper published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine found that among a cohort of more than 33,000 students, those who identified as an underrepresented race or ethnicity in medicine – such as Black or Hispanic – were more likely to withdraw from or be forced out of school.

Among White students, 2.3% left medical school in the academic years of 2014-15 and 2015-16, compared with 5.2% of Hispanic students, 5.7% of Black students and 11% of American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, the study found.

The researchers wrote in the study that “the findings highlight a need to retain students from marginalized groups in medical school.”

During her surgical rotation in medical school, Adebagbo said, she saw no Black surgeons at the hospital. While having more physicians and faculty of color in mentorship roles can help retain young Black medical school students like herself, she calls on non-Black doctors and faculty to create a positive, clinical learning environment, giving the same support and feedback to Black students as they may provide to non-Black students – which she argues will make a difference.

“Despite the discomfort that may arise on the giver of feedback’s side, it’s necessary for the growth and development of students. You’re hurting that student from becoming a better student on that rotation, not giving them that situational awareness that they need,” she said. “That’s what ends up happening with students of color. No one tells them, and it seems as if it’s a pattern, then by the end of the rotation, it becomes, ‘Well, you’ve made so many mistakes, so we should just dismiss you [for resident trainees] or we can’t give you honors or high pass [for medical students].’ “

Seun Adebagbo, right, with the site director (second from left) and two peers on her last day of her surgery rotation.

Adebagbo says she had one site director, a White male physician, during her surgery rotation who genuinely cared, listened and wanted to see her grow as a person and physician.

“He has been the first site director who has legit listened to me, my experiences navigating third year as a Black woman and tried to understand and put it in perspective – a privilege I’m not afforded often,” Adebagbo said. “He made making mistakes, growing and learning from them a safe and non-traumatizing experience. Not everyone may understand the depths of what I’m saying, but those who do will understand why I was so grateful for that experience.”

But not all attending physicians are like her “mentor,” as she calls him.

For Dr. David Howard, one question haunted his thoughts in medical school.

During those strenuous days at Johns Hopkins University, when all-night study sessions and grueling examinations were the norm, his mind whispered: Where do I fit?

Howard, now a 43-year-old ob/gyn in New Jersey, reflects with pride – and candor – on the day in 2009 when he completed his doctoral degrees, becoming both an MD and a PhD.

At the time, “I felt like I didn’t fit,” Howard said. “I’m sure I’m not the only person who has thought those thoughts.”

Howard was one of very few men in the obstetrics and gynecology specialty, where most providers were women – and he is Black. He saw very few peers who looked like him and extremely few faculty in leadership positions who looked like him.

“When you’re going through a really difficult training program, it makes a big difference if there are people like you in the leadership positions,” he said, adding that this contributes to the disproportionate number of Black medical school students and residents who decide to leave the profession or are “not treated equally” when they may make a mistake.

Early on in his career, Howard shifted his thinking from “Where do I fit?” to “How do I fit?”

He even authored a paper in 2017, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, about this self-reflection.

“Only slightly different semantically, the second question shifts focus away from the ‘where’ that implies an existing location. Instead, ‘how’ requires me to illustrate my relationship with existing labels and systems, rather than within them, allowing a multitude of answers to my question of ‘how do I fit?’ ” Howard wrote.

“Despite the challenges and realities of the medical field today, I fit wherever and however I can, actively shaping my space and resisting the assumptions that first prompted me to ask where I fit,” he said. “To finally answer my question: I don’t fit, but I am here anyway.”

The United States has made “some progress” with diversity in both clinical medicine and research – but diversity in medicine is still not at the point where it needs to be, said Dr. Dan Barouch, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who has been an advocate for diversity and inclusion.

That point, essentially, would be where diversity in the physician workforce reflects the diversity in their patient population.

“It’s particularly important to have a diverse physician workforce to aptly serve the patients,” Barouch said. “We want to increase diversity in academia as well, but it’s particularly important for doctors, because having a diverse workforce is critical for the best patient encounters, and to build trust.”

Service to patients and patient trust are both among the cornerstones critical to the status of public health, according to researchers.

One example of broken trust between physicians and Black patients happened in the 1930s, when the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute launched an unethical study in which researchers let syphilis progress in Black men without treating them for the disease. The study ended in 1972.

Among Black men, “there were declines in health utilization, increases in medical mistrust and subsequent increases in mortality for about the 10- to 15-year period following the disclosure event,” when the true nature of the study was exposed in 1972, said Dr. Marcella Alsan, an infectious disease physician and professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Yet research suggests that when Black physicians are treating Black patients, that trust can be rebuilt.

For instance, the impact is so significant that having Black physicians care for Black patients could shrink the difference in cardiovascular deaths among White versus Black patients by 19%, according to a paper written by Alsan while she was attending Stanford University, along with colleagues Dr. Owen Garrick and Grant Graziani. It was published in 2019 in the American Economic Review.

That research was conducted in the fall and winter of 2017 and 2018 in Oakland, California, where 637 Black men were randomly assigned to visit either a Black or a non-Black male doctor. The visits included discussions and evaluations of blood pressure, body mass index, cholesterol levels and diabetes, as well as flu vaccinations.

The researchers found that, when the patients and doctors had the opportunity to meet in person, the patients assigned to a Black doctor were more likely to demand preventive health care services, especially services that were invasive, such as flu shots or diabetes screenings that involve drawing blood.

“We saw a dramatic increase in their likelihood of getting preventive care when they engage with Black physicians,” said Garrick, who now serves as chief medical officer of CVS Health’s clinical trial services, working to raise awareness of how more diverse groups of patients are needed to participate in clinical research.

Initially, “it didn’t look like there was a strong preference for Black doctors versus non-Black doctors. It was only when people actually had a chance to communicate with their physicians, talk about ‘Why should I be getting these preventative care services?’ ” Alsan said.

The researchers analyzed their findings to estimate that if Black men were more likely to undergo preventive health measures when they see a Black doctor, having more Black doctors could significantly improve the health and life expectancy of Black Americans.

The nation’s shortage of Black physicians is concerning, experts warn, as it contributes to some of the disproportionate effects that infectious diseases, chronic diseases and other medical ailments have on communities of color. This in itself poses public health risks.

For example, in the United States, Black newborns die at three times the rate of White newborns, but a study published in 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Black infants are more likely to survive if they are being treated by a Black physician.

Black men and Black women are also about six to 14.5 times as likely to die of HIV than White men and White women, partly due to having less access to effective antiretroviral therapies. But Black people with HIV got such therapies significantly later when they saw White providers, compared with Black patients who saw Black providers and White patients who saw White providers in a study published in 2004 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

And when Black patients receive care from Black doctors, those visits tend to be longer and have higher ratings of patients feeling satisfied, according to a separate study of more than 200 adults seeing 31 physicians, published in 2003 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

“There’s plenty of evidence, and other research has shown that the more the workforce in a health care setting really reflects the community it serves, the more open the patient population is to recommendations and instructions from their doctor,” said Dr. Mahshid Abir, an emergency physician and a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research institution.

But it can be rare to find health systems in which the diversity of the workforce reflects the diversity of the patients.

During her 15-year career as an emergency physician, Abir said, she has worked in many emergency departments across the United States – in the Northeast, South and Midwest – and in each place, the diversity of the health care workforce did not mirror the patient populations.

This lack of diversity in medicine is “not talked about enough,” Abir said.

“The research that’s been conducted has shown that it makes a difference in how well patients do, how healthy they are, how long they live,” she said. “Especially at this juncture in history in the United States, where social justice is in the forefront, this is one of the most actionable places where we can make a difference.”

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