Breaking down barriers

Black medical students and residents inspire next generation of physicians at the Black Health Symposium

Written by Robin Summerfield

Dr. Biniam Kidane stands at the lectern in a theatre inside Max Rady College of Medicine at the Health Sciences Centre.

The thoracic surgeon is speaking to about 100 undergraduate university students and high school students of colour who are considering careers in medicine. Medical students and residents of colour are also in the crowd at the Black Health Symposium.

His message is simple yet complicated all the same.

“We’re all told we can be anything we want to be but those are just empty words in many ways. We may intellectually receive that message but in reality it can be hard to truly grasp it at our core. We, and more specifically our potential, are all shackled by the limits of where we see ourselves going,” Dr. Kidane tells the assembly.

When he was a child in Toronto, he met his family doctor, who was Ethiopian, and Dr. Kidane’s own proverbial chains were broken, he explains. Before that moment, he had just accepted as a fact of life that black people were not doctors in Canada, he says. Seeing that self-representation at the doctor’s office was pivotal to breaking a mental chain, he says.

“The breaking of those chains is a lifelong process,” adds Dr. Kidane, who immigrated to Canada from Ethiopia as a youngster.

Dr. Kidane encourages the young adults in the crowd to break their own mental chains and to help future generations also unshackle themselves.

The thoracic surgeon is delivering one of the keynote speeches at the Black Health Symposium, a one-day conference and information session to inspire more young people of colour, particularly black students, to pursue careers in medicine. The day-long event also featured talks from Markus Chambers, Winnipeg’s deputy mayor, Dr. Marcia Anderson, an internist and the WRHA’s Medical Officer of Health, and a panel of medical students and residents, fielding questions about how to get into medical school, what to expect, how to manage your student and personal life, along with a host of other topics.

“The best part is seeing these kids, so enthusiastic, so forward with the way they are asking questions,” says Amir Ali, one of the organizers, and a 4th year med student who is interested in emergency medicine.

Ali, along with 4th year medical students Achieng Tago, Helen Teklemariam, and Yohanna Asghedom, started the University of Manitoba’s Black Medical Students Association (BMSA) in early 2019. The symposium was the first large event the group has held. The event was also sponsored by Doctors Manitoba and the Canadian Medical Association.

The symposium was a way to “pay it forward,” adds Achieng Tago, a co-organizer of the event and a co-founder of the BMSA. It’s her responsibility and duty to step up and make the path easier for those who come after her, Tago says.

And the BMSA, through this symposium and the work to come, is also paving the way for the next generations of physicians of colour. The BMSA, says Ali, was formed because they noticed a “lack of diversity in the physicians present in our health-care system.”

“We often see ourselves reflected in other staff in the hospital but not as physicians on the health care team.”

The group wants to try to improve this lack of representation, Ali says.

Today, the BMSA has 13 members, and they are taking “the upstream approach by reaching out to young adults in the community while they are in high school and university,” Ali says.“We provide mentorship and resources to bridge the gap between thinking about a career as a physician and actually going through and succeeding in making that dream a reality for them.”

The group also takes a long view.

“Studies have shown that increased diversity among the health care team directly relates to better patient care and better health care outcomes,” he says.

The U of M has also identified this need for more diverse medical students, and has changed its admissions process to try and increase diversity, says Ali.

If just one student comes away from the symposium and ultimately goes into medicine, that will mean we have been successful, adds Ali.

Looking ahead, the BMSA hopes to host an annual symposium to reach out to more young students contemplating careers in medicine. The group also hopes to connect with other black medical student groups across Canada. In the immediate future, they will follow-up with participants at the summit  to offer advice, support or simply answer questions about how to navigate the application process and pre-requisites. That help, says Ali, can be instrumental in getting more black students into medical school.

It can “help youth avoid costly errors that could ultimately prevent them from achieving a career in medicine; errors that may be as simple as how important your first year of university is, but also what type of extra-curricular portfolio to build over the pre-application years,” Ali says.

Along with his fellow BMSA members, he is already well down the path to become a physician and if he can help young people follow his footsteps or clear the path in any way, then it’s worth it.

“That’s why we are doing this, the need is there, so let’s see how we can blow that door open and remove the barriers.”