Tyree Winters, DO, says his introduction to medicine as a kid in Detroit came from a unique “point of privilege.” Since the pediatrician who took care of him when he was growing up was Black, it never dawned on him that most physicians were not.
“I always thought that she was so phenomenal, and I wanted to be just like her,” he says. “I saw so many Black professionals that were either family or friends, or that I lived around, so I never thought that becoming a physician was a path I’d have any difficulty taking. I’m also in a family where multiple generations attended college. But I know that’s not the same story for many other Black and brown students. So I definitely want to see progress.”
To facilitate that progress and help introduce students of color to the medical profession, Dr. Winters, now the associate program director for the pediatric residency program at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, has helped lead an educational tour at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) called Tour for Diversity in Medicine (T4D) since 2012.
The tour’s curriculum, taught by physicians of color who became friends in the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) in 2005, covers the basics of medical school applications, interview tips, how tuition is structured at various types of schools, and more.
“We really wanted to bring the experience of the SNMA annual medical education conference to the schools instead of making the students come to us to participate,” Dr. Winters says. “The priority is exposing underserved students in disadvantaged areas to the profession, because we know that there are barriers.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened new doors for virtual programming and a wider reach. In addition to hosting other medical education events year-round, T4D partnered with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) last September to host a large virtual recruitment event. Three thousand students attended, and 60 were later provided with significant discounts on their AACOMAS medical school application fees.
Given that Black or African-American physicians make up just 5% of the national physician population, Dr. Winters said the value of students getting to meet physicians who look like them cannot be overstated. Several students he has met on tours and then mentored have matriculated at medical or dental schools. But the work can’t stop there, he said.
“A lot of times, underrepresented minority communities don’t have an understanding of what osteopathic medicine is, even though DOs tend to work in those communities more often,” he says. “So we need to continue to work on promoting our profession within those communities.
“We should also look to provide educational pathways through not only just programming like T4D, but also through financial assistance, so students who may have not have had the opportunity to apply or matriculate are able to.”
Dr. Winters is also adamant that making the profession more diverse will require all physicians to pull together, not just physicians of color.
“It often seems like it’s on [minority physicians] to make change happen,” he says. “I’ll hear other people say ‘I definitely support what you’re doing,’ but not feel totally comfortable getting involved, or know how to. We need all physicians to be a champion for minority physicians and students, and be willing to get their hands dirty with some of this work.”
Getting one’s hands dirty when it comes to advocacy, Dr. Winters says, can be done in a variety of ways. Often, he said, the first step is overcoming a fear of speaking up.
Physicians should remember that advocacy comes naturally to them, Dr. Winters says, since they are inherently advocates for all of their patients. To that end, he says it’s crucial to work to offset the well-documented adverse effects of racism on generational health, which can take shape in the form of chronic illnesses and stress-induced conditions.
As an example of a way physician advocacy can make an impact, on Jan. 6, in response to the events at the U.S. Capitol building, he wrote a tweet commenting on racial inequities that received over one million likes and 237,000 retweets.
“The more that you remain silent about things, the more you’re limiting your power as a physician who is able to implement change,” Dr. Winters says. “A lot of times, because I have ‘Dr.’ in front of my name, people will listen to me more intently than they would to the average person. It can be scary to raise your voice, but physicians should understand that there are times when things have to be said and done that are uncomfortable or controversial.
“Writing that tweet was so important to me because of the fact that I am a Black man and a physician. Because though I am a physician just like you, when I walk into a room, the first thing anybody notices is that I’m a Black man. I’d urge any physician to push back on the little silencers in your brain and look within at the potential power of your voice.”