WNPR

Documentary Focuses on 'Black Women in Medicine'

Oct 13, 2016

According to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, black Americans make up less than six percent of the nation's physicians and surgeons. A new documentary shines a light on the topic, specifically focusing on women in the field.

The documentary, "Black Women in Medicine" recounts stories of prejudice and victory experienced by black women physicians across the country. It will be featured Monday, October 17 on CPTV at 10:00 pm. 

The film is by New Haven-based filmmaker Crystal Emery, who appeared on WNPR’s Where We Live in June. Emery said some of the women she initially reached out to for the film were skeptical at first.

"They were like ‘who are you and why are you calling me?’ No one had recognized these women," she said. "When you look at the field of surgery and you have women like Dr. Claudia Thomas, first black woman orthopedic surgeon, or Dr. Velma Scantlebury, first black woman transplant surgeon, nobody knows their name. Nobody knows what they contributed to the science of medicine."

And when they agreed to take part, the stories they told were revealing. 

The documentary asks why there are so few black physicians in the country and looks at how to encourage minority students to become doctors.

Dr. Jennifer Ellis, from Hamden, Connecticut is one of the doctors featured in the film. She’s a senior cardiac surgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Heart and Vascular Institute and Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute.

“I did have a patient when I first started out in California, who actually wrote a book about his experience," Ellis said. "In his book he said, when I walked into the room he assumed I was the dietician. And then I smiled and said, ‘I'm your heart surgeon.’ And, God bless him, he didn’t flinch and he obviously did well."

Watch the trailer for "Black Women in Medicine:"

In medical school, Ellis said she was discouraged from becoming a surgeon at every step and feels more role models and support could help encourage minority students to get into the field.

Emery said that may also be crucial for black patients. Having a doctor that understands the culture you grew up in can break through barriers. She gave an example of a black woman who was in an emergency room where everybody on staff had difficulty interacting with her except one doctor.

“She could not afford to keep her prescription," Emery said. "But [the doctor] took a moment to ask her about her life, what was going on at home and then he was able to understand that there was a pride involved. And it’s that cultural sensitivity that can make a difference between life and death.”

The film also inspired a book called Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine.