n Wednesday, I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw a friend from college featured on one of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” lists. As a 20-something new doctor, I was naturally curious about who made the publication’s cut in health care.
I was quickly disappointed. While Forbes’s picks were generally diverse in terms of gender, race, culture, and religion — one inductee wears a hijab — I couldn’t help but notice that not a single person honored in my industry looked like me, African-American. While I was happy to see so many women and people of color, I wondered if I could embrace a version of diversity that lacked full representation.
That said, the honorees have all contributed a great deal. So is their racial makeup even important?
I think it is. Black people are underrepresented in medicine — we only make up 4 percent of the physician workforce, though we’re 13 percent of the US population (not counting biracial African-Americans). Role models can help increase our numbers, and arguably broaden access to care for diverse communities.
I asked Forbes about the lack of representation of black talent on the 2017 health care list, which is billed as the “most definitive gathering of today’s leading young change-makers and innovators” in the United States. The editor I spoke to, Sarah Hedgecock, noted that a separate list, for science innovators, included three black males.
Hedgecock, the assistant online editor of the pharma and health care section of Forbes, said two of the black male honorees could have gone on either list, but their accomplishments — a DNA donation start up and biomedical engineering work — felt more appropriate for the science category. (She was the primary editor on the health care list and helped with the science list.)
While these black scientists are accomplished and deserving, my feeling toward them is the same feeling I have toward black artists and athletes — admiration more than aspiration.
Practicing medicine is the soul of health care, and I wanted to see a role model and a mentor on that Forbes list — someone who has walked in my shoes, and worn my white coat.
Such role models weren’t visible to me during my training, and as I’ve written before, they’re not all that visible in society at large. That’s a problem. As Marie Wilson, the founder of the nonprofit White House Project, says: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
When I was a first-year medical student at the University of Virginia, I wrote a letter to Dr. Jennifer Ellis, one of only five African-American female board-certified cardiothoracic surgeons the country. I told her how isolated I felt in the pursuit of my dreams.
“I recently started shadowing an orthopedic surgeon and I realized that none of the residents or [attending physicians] looked like me — a realization that I found somewhat frightening,” I wrote back in 2012.
I remember searching my medical school’s website, and seeing no black female surgeons on the faculty. I looked at that list and wondered if I could fill the gap, in the same way young girls wonder if they could ever be president. At that moment it felt like a dream based in fantasy.
Looking at the Forbes list, which is supposed to be a celebration of the future of health care, I felt the same pain. I wondered if people like me would be written out of that narrative too.
Hedgecock said Forbes has struggled with this issue before in its 30 Under 30 programming, especially in science and health care, though she said the magazine has made good progress. Reflecting on the reality of the limited diversity within those fields, she said “we are working within the bounds of that.”
In the 2016 class there were two black men in health care. Surely there are more.
So in my view, Forbes can do more. It sets out to celebrate millennials “who are challenging the conventional wisdom and rewriting the rules for the next generation … breaking the status quo and transforming the world.” Forbes could be more intentional by promoting the very change it champions.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the award, but rather its downstream effects of visibility. Forbes has a high-profile platform — and could use it to promote role models and start conversations about diversity and inclusion in health care.