Dr. Milton Armstrong still remembers the stares he received more than 20 years ago when he started practicing medicine and would approach patients in his lab coat.
“Many of them had never seen a black doctor before, and they were shocked,” Armstrong said during a panel discussion Wednesday at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Armstrong is a plastic surgeon at MUSC. He joined three other medical professionals on the panel who also shared stories of their early years on the job.
The panelists agreed there still aren’t enough minorities in the medical field.
The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates fewer than 4 percent of all physicians in the United States are African-American.
In 2009, 5.8 percent of physicians in South Carolina identified as African-American, compared to nearly 29 percent of the state’s population.
“There’s still a stigma out there that African Americans are less competent and that’s coupled with the lack of access for black students to get into the medical field,” Armstrong said.
LilliAnn Harris Wright, an MUSC researcher, said diversity in the medical field helps raise awareness about diseases and conditions that plague a particular demographic.
For example, she discovered in her research that black women are three times more likely to develop triple-negative breast cancer — one that is much more difficult to treat. More than 10 percent of breast cancer cases are triple negative.
“Why are African American women getting triple breast cancer at a higher rate? What are we missing and what can we do,” Wright asked. “We need more voices in the room who are looking into these types of things.”
MUSC, for one, has been trying to promote diversity.
In January, the university launched a new website, pavedpath.musc.edu, which is free to use and was designed to help minority students apply to medical school. The site helps prospective medical school students understand academic requirements and provides information about colleges where they might obtain a doctorate of medicine.
Any student can use the site. However, Ja’Pel Sumpter, one of the website’s founders, said it is geared toward minorities.
“We need more doctors who can relate to their patients through cultural sensitivity and competency,” she said.
Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.