American Society of Hematology

Chair's Corner

Belinda R. Avalos, MD Chair, Committee on Promoting Diversity

Published on: February 13, 2017

This month we celebrate Black History Month, but did you know that Black History Month has a theme each year? This year’s theme is, “The Crisis in Black Education.” This crisis is evident not only at the K-12 and college levels, but also in medical education in the United States.

Recent statistics show that only 5 percent of practicing physicians in the United States are black, despite the more than 13 percent of Americans overall who are black. Why is this important? The infant mortality rate in the black population is twice that of whites, black men are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer, and black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer. Sickle cell disease also predominantly afflicts blacks in the United States and is a cause of significant morbidity and early death, with a median life expectancy of 42 to 47 years.

Studies have shown that black patients are more likely to seek out black physicians for their medical care and report higher satisfaction with a black physician. Additionally, more black physicians practice in low income communities of color, where physicians are relatively scarce.

In the late 1960s, black medical students accounted for only 2.2 percent of all American medical students. The implementation of race-based affirmative action programs around that time led to a nearly fivefold increase in black medical students by the late 1970s, which peaked at 8 percent in the mid-1990s. Since then, there has been growing opposition to affirmative action. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision last July to uphold race-based admissions in the Fisher vs. University of Texas decision, plenty of room remains for future challenges at other schools.

Irrespective of one’s personal opinion on race-based admissions, early trends observed after affirmative action bans in six states were implemented showed a 17 percent reduction in the enrollment of underrepresented minority students in medical schools. Policies that result in fewer black physicians could further jeopardize health outcomes for a population that is already one of the least healthy in the United States.

Fortunately, ASH leadership recognized the dearth of underrepresented minority hematologists, and in 2003, created the Minority Recruitment Initiative (MRI) to recruit and retain more underrepresented minority trainees to the field of hematology. The Minority Medical Student Award Program (MMSAP) and ASH-Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP) were the first two programs created, followed by a program for PhD trainees called the Minority Graduate Student Abstract Achievement Award (MGSAAA) Program. The MMSAP and ASH-AMFDP provide recipients with a stipend, research support, and funds for travel to the annual ASH meeting, while the MGSAAA provides recipients funds for travel to the ASH annual meeting.

This year, ASH is proud to announce an entirely new program for underrepresented minority residents, the ASH Minority Resident Hematology Award Program (MRHAP), and a more flexible option for medical students (MMSAP-flex) to complete a research project in 12 months instead of an eight- to 12-week period in the summer of the traditional MMSAP. Recipients of both the MRHAP and MMSAP are eligible to re-apply for a subsequent experience. These new programs are intended to fill the gaps in the longitudinal pathway from medical student to hematologist by providing underrepresented minority trainees with additional research opportunities and one-on-one interactions with both a research and career development mentor. Trainees have the opportunity to do research within the full spectrum of hematology ranging from stem cells to sickle cell disease to leukemia. We look forward to the announcement of this year’s awardees in March. And stay tuned for the roll out of additional MRI programs!

As we prepare to introduce new MRI programs at ASH, it is important that we highlight one of the program’s most critical components: mentoring. Margo Rollins (MMSAP, 2006) recounts her experience as a mentee of Edward Waller, MD, PhD who she now works with as a fellow at Emory University. We are also proud to spotlight Dr. Betty Pace, a world-renowned sickle cell disease researcher at Augusta University. Dr. Pace has single-handedly trained and mentored the largest number of female (and perhaps male) African-American and minority hematologists in the United States. Read on to find out more about her incredible journey to becoming a champion for sickle cell and the value of mentoring.

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