Only 5.7 percent of U.S. doctors are Black. While this percentage has risen over the past 120 years, it’s still extremely low. Experts warn that the lack of representation of Black doctors has major consequences on public health, specifically maternal health

While Black mothers and their infants are experiencing adverse outcomes in maternal healthcare, Black doctors are experiencing barriers as well. Danielle Hairston, a first-generation doctor, shared that her experience has been a mixture of bias and celebration.

“My patients have told me how happy they are to see a doctor who looks like them,” Hairston told 21Ninety. “I’ve also experienced racism, and people have ignored me on medical teams where I was the leader.” 

Hairston doesn’t stand alone. Physicians, midwives, and advocates also experience this mixture of bias and celebration.

The Value of Black Physicians in Maternal Health 

A more diverse healthcare workforce is one solution for Black families experiencing increased anxiety around birth. Cierra Murphy Higgs, a perinatal maternal health advocate, explained that increased diversity improves research, innovation, access to care and culturally congruent care. 

“Oftentimes, patient’s feel more comfortable and understood when they feel they can relate to their healthcare providers,” Higgs said. “When families have a Black healthcare provider, they feel more understood, heard, and supported in their care.”

Black doctors are more likely to understand and address the unique cultural, social, and economic factors that affect health outcomes. An increased diverse healthcare workforce helps mitigate provider bias and discrimination. Midwife LaKesha Johnson explained that Black doctors make a difference in prenatal visits, labor, delivery, and postpartum support. They ensure families receive the respectful and attentive care they deserve.

“The presence of Black doctors can be transformative for expecting moms and new families,” Johnson said. “They provide more than medical care; they offer a shared understanding, cultural competence, and an often unspoken bond of trust.” 

When Black patients are fully seen and heard, it prevents potential under diagnosis or misdiagnosis of conditions that disproportionately affect Black communities. Hairston shared that Black patients often have a better show rate and follow-up rate with Black physicians.

“If a physician doesn’t understand the history and culture of the patient population they are serving, their care won’t be the best,” Hairston told 21Ninety.

Diversity Initiatives in Medicine 

In the midst of efforts to derail the push for diversity in healthcare, there are still initiatives to increase the number of Black doctors. Higgs shared that there are many Black healthcare professionals who are sharing their journeys toward becoming doctors. Some are even offering guidance for aspiring individuals following in their footsteps. 

Johnson highlighted the Tour for Diversity in Medicine, which seeks to inspire underrepresented students of color by providing mentoring and career advice. Another valuable resource is @ProjectDiversifyMedicine, which serves as a pre-med and residency coaching platform. There’s also the Student National Medical Association Inc., which supports underrepresented minority medical students, addressing the needs of underserved communities, and increasing the number of culturally competent physicians. 

There are also pipeline and mentorship programs between medical schools and undergraduate universities. However, more than just mentorship, Johnson and Hairston agree that sponsorship is also critical. Sponsorship includes giving students the opportunities to travel, to network, to research and to show up in clinical spaces. 

“It’s critical to put resources and funding behind these programs,” Hairston said. “We need sustainability and long term commitments, not just a one time meet-and-greet mentor meeting.”

The Future of Medicine

In the future, Johnson hopes that medicine becomes as diverse as the population it serves. 

“Increasing diversity not only enriches the medical community but also enhances the quality of care for all patients,” Johnson said. 

Hairston hopes for a future where Black doctors don’t have to take on the burden of educating others about racism and the history of medicine. 

“There needs to be enough Black doctors in the space, so that the same level of care and consideration for patients is universally practiced and taught,” Hairston said. 

Higgs agreed about the need for increased representation. 

“My hope for the future of medicine is a healthcare provider system that truly reflects the diversity of the communities it serves,” Higgs said.