The quest to get more Minnesotans to see themselves as doctors

Jennifer Brooks, Star Tribune
·4 min read

It's hard to see yourself as a doctor when the doctors you see don't look like you.

Anthony Osifuye was going to be a physician assistant.

He was young, bright and Black and he wanted to help people. He was working toward his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota when a Black doctor — one of the first he'd met — pushed him to work harder, dream bigger.

"You could help more people as a physician," his mentor urged him. "You could help more people if you went further."

Osifuye hesitated, wary of the long years of school and student loan debt ahead; aware that some of his classmates had been preparing for med school since they were middle schoolers. No one had ever told him he had that sort of potential.

"I was pretty resistant, initially," said Osifuye, who grew up in Woodbury. "I think the confidence wasn't there. I never saw myself reflected in any of the doctors I had seen."

Dr. Anthony Osifuye will graduate from the University of Minnesota Medical School in May and remain here to complete his residency in interventional radiology.

We need more doctors like him.

For decades, the number of Black men entering and graduating from medical school has been in decline. Too many bright young students never get the encouragement they need; too many stumble at the barriers thrown in their way — everything from standardized tests to the part-time job they have to work while other peers are shadowing physicians or doing unpaid volunteer work to pad their med school applications.

A great doctor is a great doctor. But there's something invaluable about finding one who's shared your experiences, who understands things about your life without needing to ask. A farmer whose doctor also grew up on a farm. An obstetrician who knows what being pregnant feels like.

This is a country with deep, life-threatening racial disparities in health care, in the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately sickening and killing communities of color.

When a Black doctor walks into a Black patient's room, something changes.

Patients who were agitated calm down. Patients who were fearful seem to relax, said Dr. Daniel Osarfo-Akoto, who's also graduating from med school at the U this May.

"The way they speak to me, when I'm with them they seem to talk to me like I'm their child or sibling," he said.

"Well, young blood …" one elderly man began his explanation of the chest pain that brought him to the emergency room, casually revealing that the chest pain had started the day before his visit.

These are the people and stories that drew Osarfo-Akoto to emergency medicine. He went to college to study architecture, but when he couldn't get into an Intro to Architecture class, the biology elective he took instead changed the course of his studies and his life.

He wants to help people like his parents, immigrants from Ghana who put off visiting doctors until they're so sick they have to make a trip to the ER.

"I personally knew that the emergency room is primary care, family practice, for a lot of immigrants and at-risk populations," he said. "I felt like if I wanted to treat people who are more like me, the ER would be a good place to start."

A lot of smart, compassionate people are working to dismantle structural racism in medicine. The University of Minnesota just enrolled its largest class of Black medical students — 25 out of a class of 165. The Minnesota Medical Association is hosting a conference in April to discuss the decline in Black doctors and the toll it can take on patients.

Before you can fix the problem, you have to name it.

"Racism is a public health crisis," said Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Chomilo never saw a Black doctor when he was growing up and he loves to watch the reaction of youngsters when they come in for a checkup. They look from him, to their parents, and back, as if to say: He looks like me. He's just like me.

As Osarfo-Akoto starts his medical career he hopes to be a mentor — the one who looks at a youngster and sees a doctor.

"People like me, who don't even realize that's an option for them," he said. "That's where the battle gets lost before it starts."

Osifuye absorbed a lot of lies about what Black men are and are not. But he knows the truth.

"Black men have a lot of grit and perseverance," he said. "We are a worthwhile investment. We have so much to give."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks