Germyce M. Harris was sitting at her father's bedside at Temple University Hospital when the surgeon arrived.
"My face just lit up when I saw this tall, handsome, African American man walk into the room," Harris said of that moment this summer. "Then I noticed that the medical students around him were all white males."
Where were the young black men who could be learning from Dr. Leonard L. Mason III, she wondered?
"I said, 'When I get back to my office, we need to do something about this. What can we do to fix this?'"
What Harris wanted to "fix" is a situation the medical community has noticed for decades: The number of black men applying to medical school has stayed relatively stagnant.
According to a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, "Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine," the number of black men admitted to medical schools in the United States peaked in 1978, at 542, when 1,410 black men applied. In 2014, 36 years later, only 1,337 black men applied and 515 were admitted. (There's a shortage of black doctors overall: Less than 6 percent of medical school graduates nationally — 1,069 out of 19,254 — identified as black or African American in 2017, according to the AAMC.)
"The inability to find, engage, and develop candidates for careers in medicine from all members of our society limits our ability to improve health care for all," said Marc Nivet, chief diversity officer for the AAMC, in a foreword to the report.
Although it's been Harris' job for three years as multicultural student recruitment coordinator at the Katz School of Medicine to recruit underrepresented students to the field, the experience with her father — seeing the one black doctor surrounded by white students — made something click on a personal level.
"It painted a picture," she said. "It's one thing when you look at it on paper. It's another to see it in front of your face."
Also, she said, research that shows that when patients have a doctor who looks like them, it has a direct result on the health outcomes.
"For black men, there may be some things that you won't share with a white woman. But if a black man comes in as your physician, you may be willing to share."
On Thursday night, her father's surgeon, Mason, an assistant professor of clinical surgery at Temple, took part in "Evening With Black Men in Medicine," a chance for black male undergraduates to spend time with 14 black male doctors and residents at the medical school and hospital. Harris said 25 premed students registered for the event, where they were able to circulate in a kind of speed-dating format to meet with small groups of physicians.
It was the first of what Harris hopes will be an annual program. Since 2013, Temple's medical school has had a Diversity Day, a one-day conference where about 100 premed men and women listened to a keynote speaker and then broke into workshops.
But when only one black man decided to enter Temple's class of 2022 this year out of 21 who were accepted, Harris wanted to do something different.
"It's a reflection of how hard it is now," Harris said.
For Dr. Vincent S. Cowell, 65, he finds it "a little perplexing" why so few black men are applying to medical school. He himself entered the field in a nontraditional way: South Philadelphia born and raised, he was a teenage father who went to community college to earn a degree in nursing before getting his bachelor's in nursing at Temple. He later became a certified registered nurse anesthesiologist, and then, through a program to attract more experienced professionals to medical school, he attended Medical College of Pennsylvania. He is now a professor of clinical anesthesiology at the Katz School of Medicine.
The AAMC report lists many possible reasons for the lack of applicants: There's an absence of black male doctors as role models; black males subjected to stereotypes are suspended at school more than other students; kids at public city schools that are poorly funded, disproportionately attended by black students, don't receive good foundations in the sciences. Harris said eventually, students at the college level who want to be doctors might not perform well after three or four hard science classes. By then, they might hear from a counselor: "Maybe medicine isn't meant for you."
For the Katz School of Medicine's Class of 2022, 303 black men started the application process and 188 completed applications. Out of 32 who were interviewed, 21 were accepted. But because 20 took offers elsewhere, this year's class of 200 entering students has one black male: Sean Brown, 24, from Burlington Township. (There are 17 black women.)
Brown has been fortunate: Both his parents were professionals — his late father was an engineer and his mother is an accountant. And while he attended public schools in Burlington County through eighth grade, his parents sent him to Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., a private prep school.
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He connected with Peddie through A Better Chance, a program that helps young people of color gain access to competitive schools. After graduating, he earned a bachelor's degree in molecular and cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University (even though he said a school counselor warned him it might be too difficult of a school to get in) and later a master's in biochemistry and molecular biology before applying to Temple.
He didn't always know he was going to be a doctor, he said.
But when his father became ill with prostate cancer when Brown was in high school and later died from pancreatic cancer, he decided he wanted to go into the medical field.
"Initially, I saw it as a disadvantage when I found out I was the only black male, because just naturally, we're stigmatized in society and we are hyperaware of our identity.
"But now I look at it, honestly, as a blessing. I am representing a population that is very vulnerable. Because if we look at where Temple University Hospital is located, it's a very disadvantaged area. And I'm representing a significant population."