When being truly honest with herself, Seun Adebagbo says, she can describe what drove her to go to medical school in a single word: self-preservation.
Adebagbo, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Boston, said that as a child, she often saw tensions between certain aspects of Western medicine and beliefs within Nigerian culture. She yearned to have the expertise to bridge those worlds and help translate medical information while combating misinformation – for her loved ones and for herself.
“I wanted to go into medicine because I felt like, ‘Who better to mediate that tension than someone like me, who knows what it’s like to exist in both?’ ” said Adebagbo, 26, who graduated from Stanford University and is now a third-year medical school student in Massachusetts.
“The deeper I got into my medical education, the more I realized, if I’m in the system, I know how it works. I not only know the science, but I also know how the system works,” she said of how in many Black and brown communities, there can be limited access to care and resources within the medical system.
This has enabled Adebagbo to connect with patients of color in her rotations. She recognizes that their encounters with her are brief, she said, and so she tries to empower them to advocate for themselves in the health system.
“I know what to ask for on the patient side if I’m worried about something for myself. But then also, for my parents and my family,” Adebagbo said. “Because the way you have to move in the system as a Black person is very different, especially if you’re coming from a background where you don’t have family members that are doctors, you don’t know anyone in your periphery that went into medicine.”
Only about 5.7% of physicians in the United States identify as Black or African American, according to the the latest data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. This statistic does not reflect the communities they serve, as an estimated 12% of the US population is Black or African American.
One reason why the percentage of US doctors who are Black remains far below that of the US population that is Black can be traced to how Black people have been “historically excluded from medicine” and the “institutional and systemic racism in our society,” said Michael Dill, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ director of workforce studies.
“And it occurs over the course of what I think of as the trajectory to becoming a physician,” Dill said. At young ages, exposure to the sciences, science education resources, mentors and role models all make it more likely that a child could become a doctor – but such exposures and resources sometimes are disproportionately not as accessible in the Black community.