On 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?

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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.

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  • I was deeply saddened to see the philosophy being espoused by Dr. Okwerekwu. She suggests that Forbes should have included LOOKS as one of the criteria by which these doctors were judged. Imagine what the world would devolve into, if everyone shared her focus on promoting those who ‘look like me’. Frankly, it boggles the mind that in the year 2017 we still have people, ostensibly educated people, proposing that external appearance matters!

    Forbes: Please select the very brightest and most meritorious for your lists, whether all black, all asian, blue-eyed, female or male. Choose them for their achievements, not their outward appearances.

    STAT: Shame on you for publishing an article suggesting that we should judge people by the color of their skin, or any non-merit-based metric for that matter.

    • Todd,

      People are free to express their opinion.
      I would agree with you except you fail to understand that society does exclude people based on their race even with the credentials. You think that society is “utopian” and will choose based on merit. Unfortunately, your understanding is not clear. Let me remind you that Doctors of
      Color have routinely been excluded based on Color. Please re-visit your history books about he Post-reconstruction era and Jim Crow South that routinely made. being a Doctor of Color difficult. Please visit the Flexner Report of 1912 and visit the history of the AMA which routinely discriminated against Doctors of Color. If you don’t believe, research “AMA issues an apology to Black Doctors”. The problem with America are people like you.
      Ignorant… this is 2017… get a clue… understand society and be a part of the solituon and do not be a part of the problem.

    • Logically and perfectly stated. This is a sickness perpetuated amongst those who are impressed with themselves

  • I could not agree more with Dr. Okwerekwu. We will be what we can see. We must move, with urgency, beyond diversity to inclusion. Academic medicine should and must do more to attract, retain, train, encourage and love African American Medical students. The numbers are real and a disgrace. I don’t blame Forbes for this disgrace. The reponsibility rest with medical schools, states, the federal government and populations who should demand more inclusion. There is no excuse for the number of African American physicians to remain at 19th century levels. What Is THE reason? Maybe it’s staring you in the face.

    • I am unsure what you mean when you say we should shift to inclusion. There are 25k Caucasian applicants and 4K African American applicants. The percent accepted is roughly the same but the stats are completely different. There is an EIGHT point difference in MCAT scores(502 vs 510) and .2 point GPA difference. Imagine if medical school admissions were a complete meritocracy…
      Why does it matter if you are purple, green or yellow, it should be based on how well you are going to do in medical school and beyond. The current literature shows above a 30 (508) MCAT, the student (barring any unseen circumstances) will be graduate in four years.

    • To Joe Smith
      If I have to explain inclusion to you, then maybe you are part of the problem.
      No one espouses mediocrity. So you imply that there is only 4% African American physicians because only 4% are qualified. I will leave you with your opinion.

  • Great article Dr. Okwerekwu! I am a medical student under 30 and would love to see more representation of diversity in health care. Thanks for highlighting this much needed awareness, it is necessary. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful and unapologetic articles on race relations in the medical field of America.

  • About five-years ago, after treating her father’s hand injury an eighteen-year Hispanic female asked me, “Are you Hispanic?” “I am,” I said. “I never seen a Hispanic nurse [practitioner],” she replied in amazement. To which I replied, “You will NEVER be able to say that again.” Then we all went our way without me putting any thought into that conversation.

    After reading the linked article I immediately recalled the above conversation and realized that at eighteen I had NEVER seen a Hispanic male nurse either. And much less at fourteen when I first enrolled to attend a vocational high school License Practical Nurse program. SO WHAT that I had not seen someone “similar” to me [rather than “like” me of which there is NO other—but I digress as that is a different story]! At fourteen I simply just wanted to be a nurse and could not care less what other Hispanic males, or females for that matter, were doing then, now or NOT doing at ALL. Who cares!?! I am me. I am not them—“them” as defined by ANY narrative or portrayal. On that note, I do NOT buy into the IDIOT-ology [sic] of being a male nurse either. I AM A NURSE! Male, female, black, red, white, green, lavender, WHO CARES!?! I AM A NURSE!

    As to this article, at what point are we going to give up on this idea of why are those on this list or that list NOT like me? Who cares!?! Forbes’ list, the catalyst for this article, intended to judge those listed by the content of their character [achievement] rather the color of their skin [-M. L. King “paraphrased”]. Despite the list is exactly that, character over color, there is still someone that is NOT content. Not that it matters but the list is diverse, something the unhappy author agrees to. More important, and what matters, their achievements are monumental. Something the unhappy author agrees with as well. Yet, despite ALL of that positivity somehow the author still finds a way to be discontent. Why? Because the list DOES NOT include anyone like “me”. But, why, WHY, ruin it for others by injecting “what we put in our mouths [my choice of words that encompass ALL of our particularities-religion, orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, etc]” as being of some significance.

    The author then citing, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” as justification for the missing “me” claim. REALLY!?! Is that what Rebecca Lee Crumpler said? Dr. Crumpler, our nation’s first African-American woman physician—1864, yes, 1864. That is NOT a typo. 1864 is correct. Of course I did NOT know that and look it up. But what role models/mentors did Dr. Crumpler have as a pioneer? And she did just fine. The point, what does it matter “what you put in your mouth” with regards to your achievement or who came before you. What matters is you open doors for others and you pull them through with you.

    “I note the obvious differences in the human family [but] we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” –Maya Angelou

  • “Looking at the Forbes list, which is supposed to be a celebration of the future of health care, I felt the same pain. ”

    seriously? as other commenters have said, life isn’t fair and no one deserves an award simply for existing. if there are POC who were deserving but not selected, then fight for them. but your learned helplessness isn’t helping anyone, least of all those whom you purport to advocate for.

  • Why must people forever focus on the outer – on that which does not really matter? Do people over 30 and forty malfunction because of their age? and what does color have to do with anything? When will we start focusing on the essential?

    • Actually… we are sick of you.

      Uneducated and socially illiterate…

      Learn about social justice…

  • So, Dr. Okwerekwu, what do you intend to do about this sad, sorry state of the current reality of medicine, healthcare, and U.S. culture? Surely, your parents must have told you that “life” is not fair, that you are entitled to what you earn or seize for yourself rather than what you want.

    Are fashioning yourself as a role model for how things should be by living the part, painful though that may be? Are you mentoring those who are coming behind you? Are you pushing yourself into the mainstream as a formidable contributor to your profession and community who warrants recognition and respect?

    Is what has happened and is happening to you unfortunate, hurtful, and wrong? Undeniably, it is. If you want to create a future in which you would choose to live, then you must first survive in a present that you have inherited. Brother Brown had it right when he admonished that we are either a part of the solution or a part of problem. Whimpering in the corner is not part of the solution.

  • I can’t really see race as being an issue in medicine. You’re either a good provider or your not. Skin tone has nothing to do with how smart or compassionate a person is. I’m part American Indian does that make me any different? Does that play a part in how I treat my patients? I would say not. How many American Indians made your list? I don’t know, nor do I care personally as I’m not caught up in the racial issues that seem to be plaguing our society. As MLK said a man should be judge by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. Just my two cents

  • Dr. Okwerekwu:

    I have been following you writings for quite a while now. Let me just say that if I was able to adjudicate who appeared on the Forbes list, you would be one of my first choices. I am not a physician, but in reading your posts, I can truly appreciate your compassion and your advocacy for your patients. I think of you as a model for what a physician – any physician – should be.

    Please keep up your writing as well as your practice of medicine. I know you are still early in your career and I fully expect to see your name on this list sometime in the future.

    • Ray,

      Shame on you Ray. You are part Native-American. Your people have routinely had acts of genocide committed against it.
      The article should have resonated with you. You fail to realize that MLK fought for racial injustice. Excluding people based on color is racial injustice. Doctors of color have routine been discriminated against. Please see the AMA’s apology to Black Doctors admitting such.
      Your understanding of social justice needs re-education.
      Sadly, you should be on board with this article. You should think to yourself what you can do to help young Native Americans aspire to be in the medical field to better society.

      Learn and re-educate yourself.

    • Great comments..

      Please excuse my comment below.

      They were for another blogger.

      Be well.

  • As beautiful as this article is, there is a flaw in the argument of the author. The black community is underrepresented in medicine and that is a fact. However, if Forbes is basing this 30 under 30 on the percentage of each race then having one physician on the list is representative of the population of black physicians. I/30 is about 4 percent which is the population of the black physicians in the US. If her argument is to increase the number of black physicians on the list regardless of the the fact that they deserve to be there or not, and if they are over-representing the 4 percent of the population, then it would be unfair because they will take other physicians places on the list. And whoever said that you cannot be what you cannot see is absolutely wrong and need to reassess there stand on life and hard work. The two young black scientists who decided to start a company for DNA and the biomedical engineering did no base their work ethic on whether they have seen a previous black scientist on the list or not. They simply wanted to achieve greatness and they did. Obama would not have became a president if he based his decision on the list of all-white presidents of the USA. He simply decided to be the first and he did. I have never heard Obama complaining about not seeing a black president prior to him. And I am not saying that the author is complaining. My point is that you do not need to see people who look like you who have done it in the past in order for you to have the courage to do it, You simply work as hard as you can and you will always get what you put in. And more Importantly you do not ask Forbes to change their list so you can feel motivated. It’s just a list, it does not speak about the ability of a whole race to accomplish something. I hope I did not offend anyone and I have made my point clear. I am a minority myself, I am middle eastern who is currently a pre-med at MSU and I do not see a single person like me on the Forbes list. Probably will never see one like me. But I will never look at a Forbes list and say omg I feel discouraged and saddened because the odds are against me due to the lack of middle easterns on the list. I simply will try to be the first. Good luck on your pursuit and hopefully you and I can make it to the list.

    • to me, this article definitely seemed like complaining which — as we’ve seen by the recent US presidential elections — can be counterproductive.
      for example, bennet omalu never complained that other neuropathologists “didn’t look like me.” instead, he performed groundbreaking research which led to the creation of a foundation named after him to advance CTE and concussion research…much more significant than a “30 under 30” list from a second-tier media publication.

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