Empowering medicine

Black History Month: Early-career DO shares insights on underrepresentation and injustice in medicine

After becoming one of the youngest Black women to earn her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, Ashley R. Peterson, DO, joined a professional team that focuses on value-based care for underserved patients.


In this month’s edition of DOs to Know, we reconnect with the remarkable Ashley R. Peterson, DO. Readers may recall her inspiring journey, featured in The DO in 2020, to become one of the youngest Black women to earn a DO degree. When we last spoke with her, Dr. Peterson had recently graduated from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine-Georgia Campus (PCOM-GA) as a member of the class of 2019, and she was halfway through her intern year in family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

We are thrilled to feature Dr. Peterson this February, as she helps us observe Black History Month and graciously shares updates on her life’s milestones, addresses the crucial issue of underrepresentation in medicine and passionately discusses her commitment to primary care. Following is an edited Q&A.

Since we last spoke with you in 2020, how has your career grown and progressed?

Since 2020, I have graduated from my family medicine residency at Morehouse and I accepted my first job at ChenMed in our Columbia, South Carolina, medical center. At ChenMed, we are dedicated to patients 55 years of age and older, specifically seniors on Medicare, many of whom who are underserved.

As a primary care physician, I presently serve about 300 patients with a 450-patient cap. By design, this controlled patient panel enables me and other ChenMed clinicians to see most patients at least once a month. Through these regular visits, I’ve been able to identify and prevent disease among my patients and our team has been able to provide additional care for this otherwise vulnerable population.

Ashley R. Peterson, DO

Since we last spoke, another major milestone I celebrated was getting married to my husband, who is also a physician. Plus, I just had my first child! My husband and I haven’t told many people yet, so it’s kind of nice to announce it this way.

Your residency training coincided with the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. What was that like for you?

The biggest thing that I learned during COVID-19 was how to be adaptable. This is a great skill because physicians must be adaptable to the ever-changing guidelines, vaccine recommendations and stress levels associated with practicing primary care. During this period, I also learned how to deal with grief. A lot of people lost loved ones. A lot of people had morbidity after COVID-19. Although they may not have passed away, it did affect their lives forever.

Resilience was another trait I picked up while training at the height of COVID-19. In general, being adaptable and resilient are critical skills for attending physicians, because every patient is different. You will see thousands of patients during residency training, but once you’re on your own, you will discover that some cases won’t present exactly like those you may have encountered during training. You will be what they always say to us in medical school: a “forever learner.”

Currently only 5.2% of U.S. physicians are Black, while the same racial group makes up 12.1% (40.1 million) of the U.S. population. How can the medical community address this underrepresentation?

A great start is mentorship. Mentorship does require more time from the individual. If roughly 5% of doctors are Black, and every single Black physician takes one Black mentee, there’s still a gap. However, physicians from all backgrounds can serve as mentors to students from underserved communities.

If you don’t have the time to mentor, donating to your favorite organization is another way to help. One of the biggest sources of support that I received in school was the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). A first-generation medical student, like me, can receive a lot of direction and help from SNMA. A good mentor and organization will show you how your application should look, explain the timeline when applying to residency and some of the things that you should ask in interviews. I learned all of this from mentors and organizations.

If you want to help solve the problem of underrepresentation in medicine, you have several avenues, whether it’s your time, money or even just supporting those who use their time and money to give back. We should never underestimate the little things, such as allowing students to go to conferences or helping them get involved in leadership positions.

Dr. Peterson takes South Carolina Congressman James E. Clyburn on a tour of the ChenMed facility in Columbia.

Very often we want to mentor those who are in college, but we can and should start younger, whether that be elementary, middle or high school students. A lot of people decide that they want to be doctors when they’re young. I was in college when I discovered that I wanted to be a physician, but it’s so important for those who are younger to be inspired by a mentor. If they don’t have that validation and representation from a young age, they may not decide to become a doctor after all.

You previously shared that you have ancestors who were enslaved and ancestors who were part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. How has your family history influenced your approach to practicing medicine?

I try not to emphasize the pain and suffering of those experiences. The big takeaways, for me, are not only did my enslaved ancestors survive, but also, my grandmother received compensation for those family members who were impacted by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

I refer to it as the Tuskegee Tragedy. It directly impacted her understanding of medicine and her experience with medicine. That has always inspired me to want to change how people like her, people in her community and people in the U.S. experience doctors. When I applied to medical school, I gave a very cliché personal statement, saying I wanted to become a doctor to help people. My thought process as a physician is that I will care for everyone. Their background doesn’t matter to me. I just want to help people.

Specifically, for those who are underserved, I want to help them trust doctors more. Many people who are part of an underserved community have encountered injustices such as the Tuskegee Tragedy. Thus, they might not trust their doctor, the medical team, health care and even Western medicine as a whole. How do we change that so that patients can receive the care that they need? Not only do we know that certain zip codes, unfortunately, don’t receive the care that they need, but they might not feel like they have access to the care as well. Simply just changing those perspectives is important to me.

You’re currently practicing with ChenMed and have many patients who are underserved. Tell us more about your work.

What makes ChenMed so special is that we have a value-based care model, which many people have not heard of. This model goes hand-in-hand with the osteopathic preventive principles that we all have studied and believe in. One of the main parts of our mission is to reduce hospital sick days. We do this by giving the patient access to the doctor. To better monitor our patients and help them stay ahead of their possible illnesses, they get their physician’s cell number.

“What makes ChenMed so special is that we have a value-based care model, which many people have not heard of. This model goes hand-in-hand with the osteopathic preventive principles that we all have studied and believe in,” said Dr. Peterson, pictured here with two of her patients.

They also can easily come in for either same-day appointments, if needed, or their regular monthly appointments, and we see them more frequently if their condition calls for closer monitoring. It is a high-touch model, where patients not only see their physician as needed but can also obtain X-rays and labs in-house. This is important, especially for seniors, where access to the types of services that we provide onsite can be an issue for many people in this age group. We also help them with transportation to our centers to overcome this barrier to care.

The value-based model promotes preventive care and strong patient-doctor relationships. We feel like we’re keeping our patients from being forced to go to the hospital for care. We make this all possible by having a patient panel of no more than 450 patients. Most primary care doctors have a panel of about 1,500 to 3,000 patients. As a doctor, I’ve been very happy with this care model.

What’s next for Dr. Peterson?

I’m looking forward to taking on a leadership role at my job. Additionally, I’m involved with my family’s organization, the Peterson ACT Foundation. Through our foundation, we mentor people in our sectors of expertise. I mentor people in medicine, while my sister mentors those in the law field and my parents, as business owners, mentor entrepreneurs.

At this moment, I also do one-on-one coaching for COMLEX and USMLE. By giving back some of my time to help people who are struggling with those licensing tests, I’m practicing what I preach. If I say, ‘One way for us to change the face of medicine is more mentorship,’ then I want to make sure that I am mentoring as many people as I can and as best as I can.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Black History Month: Recognizing the Black DOs I looked up to during my medical training

Celebrate Black History Month with these Black DO physicians

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