While black Americans make up 13% of the US population, they make up a measly 4.4% of physicians and are an underrepresented minority in medicine. The doctor-patient relationship is a fundamental part of the treatment process.
Growing up poor in Newark, New Jersey, Dr. Sampson Davis was constantly surrounded by drugs and criminal activity. After spending time in a juvenile detention center, he realized he wanted more for his life. He made a pact with his two best friends from high school to become doctors. Today, Dr. Sampson’s mission is to empower the next generation and close the physician disparity in African American communities.
BLACK CORPORATE caught up Dr. Davis to discuss his medical call to action to mentor young black men and women to become doctors.
Why is diversity in medicine important?
Let me tell you…diversity is such a vital part of medicine! Having a doctor who looks or feels like you and who can understand where you are coming from increases the positive experience for the patient. And having a diverse group of doctors of different nationalities also increases our chances of learning more and advancing medicine. No person, race or nationality is an island. So for us to progress and advance in medicine, we need to increase the presence of physicians and health care professionals who reflect the community. Take African Americans, for example: we represent 3% to 4% of physicians, but only 13% to 14% of the population. Now that’s a HUGE health care disparity. To address health care disparity, health inequities, and health inequities, we need to increase the presence of black and brown physicians to reflect the same percentage of the community as we do within the medical profession.
How have things changed or improved for African American physicians in medicine during your career?
Well, that’s a very difficult question. When I started looking to become a doctor, African Americans made up 3% of doctors, and 20 years later we still make up 3% of doctors. So not much has changed. I think there is an open platform to discuss these issues now that it’s a little more welcoming and supportive than it was when I started. We as African Americans are underrepresented in health care. There is still a lot of hidden racism in medicine. No. No one tells me directly that I don’t belong; but being subjected to various instances of microaggression often made me feel uncomfortable under certain circumstances. Thank God I have the courage and stamina to fight against the tide. But at the same time, there are times when people come to you in ways that don’t feel good to me.
What were some of the difficulties you faced in your quest for medicine?
A big struggle I faced was that I felt like I didn’t belong. There was never a welcoming or party committee that made me feel like I belonged. Admittedly, no one ever said to my face “you don’t belong here”, but at the same time, the indirect and palpable feeling of not opening the door to me has always been there and still exists to this day. I mean, it is very difficult for those from black and brown communities to pursue medical studies because there are so many obstacles! There are financial issues, academic issues, or perhaps not having anyone in your family who has ever been a doctor or even a healthcare worker – it makes you feel like a stranger! I have faced everything from academic challenges to financial and social challenges. The mental stress of it all – not feeling that kind of collegial atmosphere often made things difficult. I guess the best way to describe it is that when you walked into the room and the music was playing, it was never your music. You had to kind of get in line, keep up and adjust. You had to be a chameleon of sorts. You had to walk and use some maneuvers and positions that maybe weren’t true to who you were, but at the same time the goal was to graduate and receive your degree and so you did that through all the necessary means.
As someone who serves on the front lines and has seen firsthand the high death rate in the African American community, how do you manage your mental health?
As we hopefully move beyond COVID, mental health is extremely important. It’s under-discussed, services are under-utilized, and we don’t have a “one glove fits all” solution here. Diabetes is very tangible. If your blood sugar is high, you know you have diabetes. How do you wrap your arms around depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress or substance abuse? How do you wrap your hands around those things that seem intangible? Mental health seems to be a huge issue. For me, it is very important to stay in step with that. COVID has been stressful; practicing medicine is very stressful on its own, minus COVID. For me, I do things that balance me out. I need to take a vacation. It’s important for me to do things outside of medicine, like exercise and spending time with my family and friends. I have a lot of faith and I believe in God, so I also worship my God. I do fun things, like watch movies and go out to dinner.
What initiatives does your foundation, “The Three Doctors”, offer to help young men and women of color consider the medical field?
The Three Doctors Foundation—Wow! April is 22 years old! We formed this organization when we were residents, interns. We laughed when we formed it because the only philanthropist we knew was student loans. The Three Doctors Foundation is the blood that runs through my veins. It’s something important for the three of us to provide something we didn’t have growing up. It’s important to serve as the face of health and education, simply because of what it does to a young mind – if they can do it, I can do it. We run events and programs throughout the year, from scholarship programs we offer to positive peer pressure, where we challenge and inspire young people to do something positive in their group rather than something negative. We organize walkathons where we get out and walk to promote healthy lifestyles. You name it, we do it all. The most important thing I feel that we serve as The Three Doctors is the concrete, real, tangible image that this is possible. Although we are still underserved in the field of medicine, I have seen more young black and brown students realize that they too can become doctors. As with anything else, often the ambitions may be in other areas, but now they see they can make it happen.
To learn more about Dr. Sampson Davis and The Three Doctors Foundation, visit www.drsampsondavis.com.