UMHS 2020 graduate Dr. Venus Swearingen knows firsthand that women of color face many challenges in the traditionally white-male world of medicine. However, she is committed to helping others overcome obstacles through mentoring. Dr. Swearingen was on the panel of “Making It in Medicine,” a Umoja Medical Workshop Zoom presentation held in November at Moreno Valley College in her native California.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Swearingen about the workshop and important issues she discussed with both high school and college students at the Umoja medical workshop.
“Umoja is a Kiswahili word that means unity and focuses on the importance of togetherness among family and community members,” she said. “In the concept of unity, the Umoja workshop's goal is to enhance the academic success and personal growth of African-American and other students. Some of the key points my colleagues Dr. Ebonie Vincent, Dr. Martina Randall, Professor Briana Boykin, and I talked about to the college and high school students in attendance were focused on empowering them. We discussed what led us all to become doctors and pursue medicine, succeed in medicine, study tips, and the impact COVID-19 has had on our patient care. We each shared our trials, tribulations, and struggles. The students were really appreciative of our real open and honest responses.”
Women and people of color face issues in the healthcare field, but overcoming barriers is possible. Dr. Swearingen speaks from firsthand experience.
“The field of healthcare is a white male-dominated field. Because of this, there still is discrimination and embedded systemic racism. I have had patients confuse me for medical staff and not the physician. When conversing with my colleagues of color, they report several cases where patients refuse service because of their skin color. Some patients lack confidence in our abilities as a medical professional because of this systemic racism.
Dr. Swearingen notes that, according to a 2019 report in Forbes, black Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population but make up an overall 4% active physician workforce, with black female doctors representing only 2%.
“The lack of black providers has lasting consequences on the disparities that already exist. Black patients may feel more isolated and less trusting of the care they're receiving. The medical community is sorely lacking in diversity, and this has to change to address systemic racism.”
The Power of Perseverance for Women of Color
Dr. Swearingen struggled with personal issues at a young age.
“I was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 13,” she said. “Growing up in a low-income household, I did not receive the best health care and education. I struggled to find the balance between managing my health and the multiple jobs that I had in college to afford my textbooks. My grades soon declined, and I struggled to get accepted into a U.S. medical school.”
She initially thought she may never become a doctor.
“I pretty much gave up on my dreams and started working full time. But my passion for medicine continued, and after several years I reapplied to medical school and was accepted.”
Dr. Swearingen attended UMHS in St. Kitts. Medical school was not easy, particularly when faced with academic, personal and financial setbacks.
“After taking such a long gap, I struggled to balance my health and studies, but I never gave up. I remember failing my first exam. That momentary failure changed me. I began to show up [in professors’ offices] during office hours. I asked questions in class and practically lived in the library since then. I never gave up. When I lost my financial support to pay my school tuition, I took that semester off to work. When I finally saved up the money, I immediately went back to school and finished. I faced a lot of challenges with my health, finances, and personal insecurities. Still, I continued to surround myself with positive family and friends who encouraged me to keep going. When I stopped doubting myself, it became realistic to succeed.”
Dr. Swearingen is applying for the 2021 MATCH. In the meantime, she is mentoring women of color in the healthcare field.
What are common things prospective medical students of color need help with?
“The field of medicine lacks diversity,” she said. “Thus, there is still systemic racism that negatively affects black providers' ability to practice effectively, and it plays a role in the healthcare disparities that currently exist in the black and underserved communities. The goal of mentoring women of color in the healthcare field is to diversify medicine, help reduce the health disparities that currently exist, and do away with systemic racism. Some of the methods my colleagues and I are taking to diversify medicine and assist prospective medical students include the Umoja workshops. This workshop and other workshops like this are ways to mentor underserved communities and students of color, talk to them about medicine, offer guidance, and help them succeed. The majority of the questions I received from prospective medical students were about studying and various study tips for success.”
Dr. Swearingen said medical schools can create more Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Practices to help women of color interested in medicine.
“Medical institutions can help play a major role in tackling systemic racism issues in the medical field. Our institutions must believe in the importance of diversity and advocate for more institutional initiatives that support inclusion. Medical schools can accomplish this by using a holistic review process to admit students, which is already seen in many Caribbean medical schools. Schools that used a holistic review process experienced increased diversity and no change to student success metrics.”
What else can be done?
“Educational institutions should implement a pipeline and recruitment efforts to engage women of color and their communities. Educational institutions can accomplish this through mentoring high school and college students in underserved communities. Lastly, medical institutions can hire more physicians of color as faculty and staff, influencing prospective medical students of color to attend that specific school.”
Ways the Biden-Harris Administration Can Help Women of Color Become Doctors
America is at a new crossroads, with President-elect Joe Biden (who had huge support in the black community) and the first-ever African-American/South Asian female Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, ready to be inaugurated on January 20, 2021. Dr. Sweringen said the incoming new administration can help create positive change to fight the systemic racism in America and help improve healthcare for people of color in medically underserved communities in numerous ways.
“It is documented that African Americans suffer from some of the highest diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension rates than their white counterparts,” she said. “That’s partly due to the systemic racism and inequality in our American healthcare system. Because African Americans tend to be poorer on average than other demographic groups, our government needs to ensure that affordable health care is available for all. Public health insurance, such as Medicaid, is vital to close the gap of some of today's economic inequality.”
Medicaid expansion may not be enough for many people of color with no or very limited health insurance.
“To more efficiently address systemic racism issues in the American healthcare system, our government needs to expand the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare] to universal coverage, affordable by all, particularly people of color. Especially now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans desperately need affordable health care. Healthcare should be a human right for all, and not just for the privilege. There is also an untrusting feeling rooted deep inside black men and women due to a history of unequal and misstatement of the black communities by our medical system. Thus, African Americans are less likely to seek treatment or be compliant with recommended treatment plans. Our government and health care organizations should implement cultural competency training to health care professionals to address the implicit bias. Understanding these factors is needed if efforts to enhance patient access to and satisfaction with care are effective.”
People of color have suffered in so many ways over the years and have helped create change and awareness through movements like Black Lives Matter, but there is still much work left to do, especially for future doctors of color.
“Progress without struggle lessens the value of the reward,” Dr. Swearingen said.
(Top photo): UMHS 2020 graduate Dr. Venus Swearingen, mentor for women of color interested in medicine. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Swearingen.
Scott is Director of Digital Content at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.