For Some Black Students, COVID-19 Is Spurring Interest in Health Care Careers
Black professionals are underrepresented in medical professions, but some students at a high school in North Carolina are hoping to change that.
As a child, Destiny Baines initially wanted to be a princess and an astronaut. By second grade, that changed and she began aspiring to careers in health care and medicine. She wanted to be a dentist until the idea of working in people’s mouths eventually lost its appeal.
Now 18, Baines is in the second semester of her senior year of high school—and the third year of the pandemic. She is focusing on a new professional goal, one inspired in part by the global health crisis: to be a pharmacist.
In 2020, amid the initial rapid spread of COVID-19, Baines was a sophomore studying health sciences through the Early College Academy at Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, a majority Black high school. Health care-focused courses like those offered at the Dudley academy give students opportunities to learn about medical careers and, in some cases, get hands-on experience. During their senior year, students can study full time at a local college through a free dual enrollment program to earn high school and college credit at the same time.
Baines has enjoyed mixing different chemicals and wondering what kind of medications could be produced in a lab. The occasional fiery reactions some concoctions produced has intrigued her, too.
The number of COVID-19 deaths has strengthened Baines’ resolve to work in medicine. She wants to open a Black-owned pharmacy in Greensboro and give back to a community that she said has always supported her.
“It was sad to think about families who lost their loved ones because of a pandemic, and at the time we didn’t have any medications or any vaccines,” Baines recalled. "This is why I need to be a pharmacist, because I could be helping other people.”
Baines is far from alone. Across the country, more students are showing an interest in medical careers. A survey by the EdWeek Research Center last year found that 55% of educators noticed an uptick in students interested in careers in health care during the pandemic. Also, 40% of educators said they had made a bigger effort to encourage students to consider the health care field, according to Education Week.
For Baines and many other students, pandemic-driven interest in the field is both about helping people in need and diversifying the medical profession, particularly after watching the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the Black community.
“This is why I need to be a pharmacist, because I could be helping other people.”
The pandemic has claimed more than 900,000 lives in the U.S. alone. It has had a disproportionate impact on Black people in many ways, including deaths and numbers of orphaned children. The health crisis has also caused many Black girls to become caretakers. Systemic problems such as racism and disparities in employment, wealth, and health care access continue to put Black people and other people of color at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Baines said that the pandemic has widened her perspective about life, including the systemic problems that need solving—and the everyday things people take for granted. “I have always cherished my family, but it made me just want to hold on to them a little bit tighter,” she said.
Representation in Health Care Matters
The health care industry could certainly use more Black workers. Only 5% of active physicians identified as Black in 2018, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Most active physicians, according to the AAMC, are white and male.
Beyond coveted roles in health care like physician or surgeon, there are also racial disparities in other medical disciplines. For example, there tend to be fewer minority groups represented in roles within medical research, said Dr. Reginald Hill, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. But Hill is also seeing a shift in efforts to diversify the demographics of the “unsung heroes” of the health care world.
“It is kind of admirable to see that a lot more places now have made more of a push to recruit underrepresented minorities into scientific research through a variety of different programs and initiatives that are really aimed at making sure that we widen the funnel for qualified applicants,” Hill said.
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Pharmacology is becoming more diverse, but is also still a majority white profession. Representation of Baines’ ultimate career goal—a Black pharmacy owner in Guilford County, North Carolina—also falls short. Hersey Pharmacy, a Black-owned pharmacy in Durham, is over 50 miles away and the next closest one, Premier Pharmacy and Wellness Center, is roughly 90 miles away in Charlotte. Hamlin Drug Store, in Raleigh, was the oldest Black-owned pharmacy in North Carolina before it closed in 2017.
Such representation matters. Good science can’t be done without a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, said Anastacia Awad, the head of diversity and inclusion at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research.
“I don’t think we have a shortage of talent in our Black community; it’s there,” Awad said. “I see it as, how are we ensuring that we have systems in place so that people have fair access? I think it’s an access problem versus an inherent numbers problem.”
Baines said it’s also important for more Black people to pursue health care careers so that others “can see us and know that we can do more than what they think we can.”
Indeed, more Black people are doing just that. The AAMC recently reported an increase in the percentage of first-year medical students who are Black and Latinx, with the number of Black first-year students increasing more than 20% in 2021.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Health Care Workers
Kyaesia Monroe, another senior at Dudley’s academy, found herself with a lot of downtime at the start of the pandemic—and a lot of stress. She would watch a TV show that was an inspiration for her interest in becoming a general surgeon: “Grey’s Anatomy.” She also had tangible concerns about her and her family’s health. At the time, Monroe worked as a restaurant hostess, and she witnessed customers who refused to comply with mandates meant to stem the spread COVID-19, such as wearing masks.
She didn’t want to jeopardize the health of her family. Her mother was very cautious about COVID-19 and advised Monroe against going to small gatherings with friends and any other nonessential trips. “I was by myself a lot, and I got to learn about myself. It was very good character growth,” Monroe said.
At the time, Monroe faced academic challenges. She was managing four Advanced Placement classes, two honors classes, and one online course. She also received her first-ever “F” that year. But, she said, she bounced back—and, through her work in health care settings, became inspired to help people most affected by systemic inequity.
Last summer, Monroe volunteered at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, and she met a diverse pool of professionals. She also got opportunities to watch surgeries—and noticed the lack of racial diversity. Many of the general surgeons were white men.
Monroe recognized the disparities among communities and individuals who were affected by COVID-19. Racial minorities, she said, seemed to be feeling the brunt of it.
“A goal of mine, if I am in the health care system, is to try and help minority communities or people that don’t have the financial assistance that they could possibly have,” she said. Monroe now wants to open a clinic to benefit low-income communities.
This semester, she started taking nursing fundamentals at Dudley’s academy. The hands-on class prepares students to become certified nursing assistants. Even if she doesn’t eventually become a general surgeon, Monroe said she is happy to be involved in the health care field in some capacity to help people.
Many educators have worked hard to continue to stoke their students' interests in health care, even when opportunities for them to get hands-on and in-person experience have waned. At Dudley, for example, there usually is a point in the nursing fundamentals course when students work with the elderly at a nursing home, according to Desiree Acevedo, who has taught the academy’s health sciences track for nine years. That has not been possible during the pandemic, she said. The students have completed simulated labs instead, she said, and it has been tough to get them motivated and “make them feel like they are making a difference.”
Acevedo—or Mrs. Ace to her students—has been a registered nurse for 28 years, 17 of which she spent in operating rooms. She tries to emphasize to her students the vast career possibilities in health care and the ability to advance in specific fields.
Students like Monroe and Baines don’t need much more convincing, despite the challenges.
Indeed, Baines wants her goal of becoming a pharmacist and opening a pharmacy to help inspire the next generation—particularly the now-aspiring princesses and astronauts who look like her. They may change their mind someday about their careers, as she did, and she wants to be an inspiration that is often missing in the health care and medical fields.
“I know that the change that I wanna see has to start somewhere,” Baines said, “and if I don’t do it, I don’t set the example for other kids who want to become pharmacists who look like me. I want them to know that ‘If she can do it, then I can do it.’”
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