During his medical school interview season in 2016, Korry Wirth's mother died.
He started school at the University of Rochester's Medical Center in New York, thinking he could push through the grief.
Wirth was wrong.
“I don’t want to say I fell on my face," said Wirth, now graduated from medical school, "but I struggled quite a bit just emotionally, mentally."
At the same time, three doctors — Gina Cuyler, Linda Clark and Nana Duffy — were laying the groundwork for the Black Physicians Network of Greater Rochester, an organization whose mission is to "reduce health disparities and improve the health of the community by increasing the number of black physicians." Wirth learned about the network through a student association soon after.
Now, as a surgery resident at University of Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital, Wirth contributes his success to the BPN.
“If it weren’t for [them] keeping me up mentally and really validating what I was feeling throughout all those difficult times, especially that first year of medical school,” Wirth said, “I don’t know if I would have been able to get through it as well as I did.”
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Why support is crucial
Alongside established recruitment and retention efforts at medical institutions such as URMC, the Black Physicians Network of Greater Rochester and other community organizations are working to aid medical students from under-represented communities. Seasoned physicians are going beyond admissions and financial aid to provide medical students of color with academic, emotional and mental support to help them thrive in the high-pressure world of medical school and beyond.
Black and Latino physicians and medical students are scarce in most institutions of higher learning across the United States. In 2019, 7.1% of matriculated medical students identified as Black, and 6.2% identified as Latino, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The same year, only 5% of active physicians identified as Black and 5.8% as Hispanic. That's a significant difference compared to the general U.S. population, which is 13.4% Black and 18.5% Latino, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Socioeconomic factors play a big part in why doctors of color are in short supply. Things like access to quality education, household income and community resources can deter a young student from even dreaming of becoming a doctor. According to the AAMC, a four-year medical school can cost over $200,000.
Yet Dr. Chris Richardson, a Black surgeon and the vice president and treasurer of the Black Physicians Network, has experienced firsthand why diversity among doctors is so important.
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Even patients who are not Black but come from under-represented communities or don't speak English as a first language connect with him through common ground.
“I’m not a Spanish speaker, but I’m able to work with individuals who may not speak English at all or too well because … it’s a familiar face, and they might let their guard down a little bit,” Richardson said.
He said these patients often believe he will understand their concerns better than a white doctor.
“They might tell me a little bit more of what’s going on," he said. "They might just feel more comfortable in my presence because I might not judge them. I may not look at them in a fashion that they feel that they’re being looked down upon.”
That trust has perhaps never been more crucial. According to the CDC, Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Black people — 13% of the U.S. population — made up 30% of coronavirus cases. Historically, people of color have faced health problems at higher rates than white Americans. Problems stemming from systemic racism, like crowded housing conditions caused by segregation and redlining or inconsistent access to health care due to expensive medical bills, have disproportionately affected Black and other communities of color as well.
Being the change they needed
In historically diverse Rochester, the population is 39% Black and 19% Hispanic or Latino. Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, is one of the city’s most notable residents, and the Puerto Rican population started as early as 1890, when Domingo Delgado served as an executive for Eastman Kodak.
Yet while the city boasts a culturally rich history, its medical scene does not reflect that diversity. Organizations are trying to change that — and supporting medical students is a key component of the work.
The Black Physicians Network of Greater Rochester, a nonprofit made up of over 60 doctors, pairs local medical students and residents with mentors from the medical field. The mentorship program goes beyond professional advice to support the student as a person, too.
“It isn’t always the person who can help you in biochemistry or understand the questions they may ask you in your surgery rotation,” said Dr. Linda Clark, current president of the Black Physicians Network. “Sometimes they need to know things like, ‘Where do you get your hair done?’ or ‘How do you make a budget?’”
Members, who made their own journeys through medical school, know how key that support can be. One of the co-founders, Dr. Gina Cuyler, was inspired to develop a mentorship program from her own experience as a Black medical student.
Cuyler began her journey to become a physician at URMC in 1988. Coming from New York City, she was shocked that she was one of the few Black students at the school.
"We faced a lot of, I would say, microaggressions, racism that we really weren’t prepared for, at least I wasn’t prepared for," Cuyler said.
Cuyler was ignored when she tried to answer questions in class; her white peers were chosen over her. When she shadowed doctors in hospital rooms, people assumed she was a housekeeper or a food server for patients, even when she wore her white coat.
Black faculty tried their best to support her, she said, but they were facing the same painful discrimination.
More than 30 years later, Cuyler works as a physician at URMC and co-founded the BPN, treating patients and supporting medical students who are following in her footsteps.
"I realized, in conversations, that the same problems that I had faced as a medical student and resident were still being faced by current medical students and residents," Cuyler said.
In response, Cuyler decided to create a network of people who understood the challenges of being a Black physician and supported aspiring medical students — something she longed for when she was a student.
Alongside the mentorship program, the BPN gives emergency scholarships to students who may be struggling financially. Wirth is grateful for the opportunities that the BPN’s financial assistance gave him.
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“There were definitely some very, very difficult times financially for me, especially not having parents around,” Wirth said. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how I would have made it through, at least in five years. I would have had to take some time off to make some money to support myself throughout school.”
But the organization doesn't just support students. It also acts as a network to connect Black physicians in the Rochester area.
“When you’re in the hospital, walking the halls, seeing patients, almost all the time, you’re the only Black person that you see, or it’s a handful,” Richardson says. “Frankly, it’s a little lonely.”
That loneliness is what motivated Richardson to join the BPN. He says those shared hardships and triumphs that come with being a Black physician create a supportive group that understands and uplifts its members.
How med school helps support students of color
Medical institutions, too, are tackling the issue of diversity in the field head-on.
Dr. Flavia Nobay, the associate dean of admissions at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, works to create a diverse student population and attract an applicant pool that reflects the diversity of the greater population.
More recently, the school’s medical student interviews were conducted virtually due to the coronavirus rather than requiring candidates to travel. This eliminated some of the financial barriers that medical students may face, Nobay said. The virtual interview experience allowed the school to draw from a larger and more diverse population. The success resulted in the school volunteering to conduct virtual interviews again, even as COVID restrictions lift.
“We’re all desperately trying to make up in an equity lens in a restorative way to populations that have really been disenfranchised,” Nobay said. “All the work I do in admissions, I would say about 80 to 90% of the conversations we’re having is around creating equity for these students in particular.”
Historically Black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs, are already seeing a spike in Black med students, and URMC hopes to follow in their footsteps. Howard University School of Medicine recently reported a 28% increase in Black applicants to its existing majority-Black student body. Howard already admits more Black students than most medical schools in the U.S
URMC is looking to encourage more diversity with each incoming class. The school has collaborated with ethnic groups, including the Black Physicians Network, to create mentorship models and hire diverse faculty members. The school also accommodates students’ transition to working at a predominantly white institution, a change that Cuyler said she would have greatly appreciated when she attended.
Early start, lasting impact
Wirth knows that thriving in medical school was about more than just academic success.
“It’s almost more so a spiritual and mental battle,” he said. “I would absolutely consider [BPN] more than just educational mentors — I definitely felt like they’ve become part of my family, and I still rely on them to this day.”
Leaders at both the Black Physicians Network and URMC say support needs to start from the beginning of a potential physician's education.
The Black Physicians Network plans to expand its mentorship program to undergraduate students and high school students. URMC provides programs to encourage students to pursue medical degrees as early as high school. The institution specifically focuses on “pipeline programs” that give local high school students the tools and skills they need to pursue a career in medicine.
Cuyler has worked with both the BPN and URMC to make the Rochester medical community more diverse, but she says there’s still work that needs to be done.
“I don’t believe that this problem is going to be fixed by only have Black physicians help Black students,” Cuyler said. “I think that we need everyone who’s interested in seeing students thrive no matter who they are, to be around the table.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Nana Duffy's name