The College of Community Health Sciences’ first ever African American Male Health Career Forum was held on Saturday, Jan. 18, in an effort to address the minority physician shortage in Alabama.
The event, which was hosted by the College and it’s Institute for Rural Health Research, was geared specifically for African-American male high school students.
One hundred students from various West Alabama high schools (including those from rural communities and Tuscaloosa city and county schools) were invited to participate in the forum, which was held in the Ferguson Theater on The University of Alabama campus and featured keynote speaker Rani G. Whitfield, MD, a family medicine physician otherwise known as ‘Tha’ Hip Hop Doc.
The focus of the day was not only on the shortage of African American physicians in Alabama and across the United States, but also the shortage of male African American physicians.
Only 7.3 percent of the U.S. medical school applicants in 2011 were black, and of that number, 34.9 percent were male, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In 2012, only 5 percent of direct care physicians in the United States were black.
There were a few reasons Pamela Payne-Foster, MD, MPH, coordinator of the event, posed in her opening talk of the day-long forum. One was the amount of debt accumulated in medical school. Another was the amount of time spent in school before being able to make money, which would make professions in other fields look more attractive to young African-American males.
“These students don’t always know that there are other options available in health care,” said Payne-Foster, deputy director for the Institute for Rural Health Research and associate professor in the College’s Department of Community and Rural Medicine.
After Foster’s opening talk, Whitfield took the stage, talking about his path to medical school and his profession as a hip hop artist and a family medicine physician. He spoke about “The Pact,” a book written by three African-American physicians—Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt—who grew up in Newark, N.J., faced with struggles and temptations. They made a promise to each other that they would become doctors, and they were able to by joining forces and holding each other accountable, Whitfield said.
The students later broke into groups to further discuss the book and work with mentors in health care fields.
“Your success is really up to you,” Whitfield said. “Dedication, determination and discipline: If you are struggling in a class, struggling in school—there are people who can help you. You have to make a decision about your life.”
Whitfield, whose home and practice are in Baton Rouge, La., is known for his appearances on CNN, BET’s “106th Park,” iVillage and other national talk and news shows.
He released in 2008 “Tha’ Hip Hop Doc Presents: State of Emergency,” a health education music CD, and the comic book series, “Tha’ Hip Hop Doc Presents: The Legion of Health” in order to educate youth about healthy lifestyles and habits. He founded the Hip Hop Health Coalition, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote healthy living to youth groups.
Payne-Foster said that because the mission of the College emphasizes rural communities, much of the focus of the Rural Health Leaders Pipeline programs has been predicated on focusing on rural youth to encourage them to go to medical school, working with them through graduation and encouraging them to return back to their hometowns or a similar place in rural Alabama to practice.
“However we have been struggling with getting minority students into this model as well as recruitment of our students into some Black Belt counties,” Payne-Foster said. “We are experimenting with expanding our own model to include minority students from underserved urban communities to consider working in underserved rural communities. This expands the model into preparing medical students of varied backgrounds to serve in any community in Alabama.”
It is important to educate students about career possibilities in health care professions at an early point of their academic career, Payne-Foster said.
“Studies show that the earlier you introduce students to the medical field, the better prepared they will be in successfully completing the course of study,” Payne-Foster said. “In fact, high school is kind of late. Starting even earlier, like around middle school, is even better.”