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Peoria-Area Physicians Discuss Decline Of Black Men In Medical Field

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Dr. John Fonge, left, and Dr. Kelvin Wynn.

Racial disparity remains a problem in the health care field, with fewer Black men applying to, and enrolling in, medical school today than in the 1970s.

“When you look in terms of the of the of the number of the physicians in this country, only 2% are Black men. So that’s appalling,” said Dr. Kelvin Wynn, a practicing family medicine specialist with UnityPoint Healthcare. “Then when you look at medical school enrollment, back in 1978-79, the enrollment was actually about 3.1%, and actually in 2019-2020 it was lower at 2.9%.”

Dr. John Fonge, a practicing pediatrician with OSF Health Care, believes attracting more Black men into medical careers is critical to the community’s well-being.

“That disparity has played a role into how our communities are taken care of and receive care,” said Fonge, noting Blacks have higher rates in a variety of chronic health issues such as diabetes and heart failure. “There’s known literature, known data and reports that Black people are just more comfortable when they’re taken care of by doctors who look by them. There’s more of a comfort, and they’re more willing to going to go to the doctor.

“So with the known disparities in the health care field, just having more Black men and Black individuals (will) help close that gap.”

Wynn and Fonge are both professors at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria and have seen evidence of the racial disparity first hand. They are scheduled to be the featured speakers in an upcoming live Zoom forum discussion arranged through a partnership among Woodford County’s Illinois Prairie District Public Library, the Peoria Public Library and the Chillicothe Public Library District.

Scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18, the forum is being held in conjunction with the libraries’ free online screenings of the feature-length documentary, “Black Men in White Coats.” Director Micah Autry’s film examines this diversity crisis and explores ideas to reverse the decline.

Wynn feels the problem is rooted in systemic racism, and points to our schools for not laying the groundwork for minority students to pursue medical careers.

“I think the education system is failing young Black boys,” said Wynn. “I think it’s failing with that in terms of there’s a lower number of Black boys that participate in gifted and magnet programs, some AP programs and STEM courses. A number, certainly, of kids that are suspended for disciplinary actions and stuff in schools are young Black boys, so that’s a disparity there.

“I love the particular quote, if you remember, former President George W. Bush phrased it, ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ I think there’s actually just low expectations that have been unfortunately placed on Black boys.”

Fonge said those low expectations and educational inequities also make it harder for young black men to get into medical schools.

“In terms of access to education, this is not a recent issue; it stems back generations,” said Fonge. “Minorities and Black individuals haven’t had as easy access to attend colleges as their counterparts who are non-Black. So if you have trouble attending college and attaining an education, then right there is a barrier.”

He also noted the paucity of Black men in health care careers serving as role models to younger generations perpetuates the dilemma.

“In the community (you) may live in, (not) seeing other individuals who look like you who are doctors, it’s hard to imagine yourself being a physician if there’s not many people who look like you,” said Fonge.

Wynn said he was fortunate to have such a role model inspire his career path.

“I wanted to become a doctor. I forgot how old I was, but I was certainly at a young age, and I reflect back that one of the main reasons for that is because my family doctor growing up with a Black male, said Wynn. “So I saw that that was something achievable.

“Unfortunately, a lot of Black boys, Black teenagers, they don’t get to see that. When Black boys see that there is somebody that looks like them that’s in that particular role, hopefully that can be nurtured, and they can see that that’s something achievable.”

Wynn said there’s often a negative perception of Black men perpetuated through main stream media, and that in turn has an effect on in creating biases that lead to lower college and medical school admissions.

“I think medical schools need to critically look at their admission processes, critically looking at them for biases,” he said. “Are there inherent biases that are in those admission processes? And then how do we implement strategies to tear those biases down?”

Wynn said increasing the percentage of Black men who become doctors should be treated like a public health issue, beginning with educating the public about the need and developing community partnerships for fundraising and mentoring programs.

Fonge said the first step toward reversing the trend is realizing all the barriers exist, then working to overcome them. He said the issue is a concern for society as a whole.

“It’s not just isolated to like Black people, my people; it’s just people,” said Fonge. “And if our goal is to help people – heal them and treat different diseases and illnesses they may get in this diverse population we have – then we need to get a work force in the health care field that is diverse as well. A diverse health care force is going to be a lot more capable in addressing the issues and barriers that our patients and communities have.

“By limiting the number of Black men and Black individuals in medicine, we’re basically limiting our potential to help our communities and our society. By not adressing this issue, we are really holding ourselves back.”

The screenings of “Black Men in White Coats” are scheduled for Feb. 16-18, with registration required and space limited. Visit https://indiescreening.com/screenings/38 to sign up to watch the film, and https://bit.ly/IPDPL-BMWC-Discussion to participate in the forum discussion.  

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