To honor Black History Month, NeurologyLive® spoke with influential Black clinicians on the leaders they look up to, the ongoing fight to overcome racial disparities, and ways to encourage diversity in health care.
Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating and honoring the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans, is observed every February in the United States and increasingly around the world. African Americans have played a central role in US history, including in medicine. Notable pioneers in medicine include Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first Black professional nurse in the US, as well as Solomon Carter Fuller, known as the first Black psychiatrist, who was a research assistant to Alois Alzheimer and reported the ninth case of Alzheimer disease ever described.
Across neurology specifically, there have been several other barrier-breakers, including Alexa Canady, who became the first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon in 1981, and Audrey Shields Penn, a neurologist and emeritus professor who was the first Black woman to serve as an acting director of an institute of the National Institutes of Health. While these individuals have helped open the door for a more diverse and inclusive society, challenges remain to building a more equitable environment in health care and beyond.
As part of our efforts to recognize contributions both past and present, NeurologyLive® spoke with several Black leaders in the neurology community to learn more about their experience in health care, what or who has inspired them, and how they are helping their communities overcome disparities.
We're pleased to feature insights from Jennifer Adrissi, MD MSCR, an adult neurologist and movement disorders specialist at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Adrissi is a former NIH NeuroNEXT fellow and an alumna of the prestigious American Academy of Neurology (AAN) TRANSCENDS (Training in Research for Academic Neurologists to Sustain Careers and Enhance the Numbers of Diverse Scholars) program under the leadership of Drs. Bruce Ovbiagele and Daniel Lackland. In addition to her clinical efforts, Dr. Adrissi is an accomplished health services researcher and has received grant awards through multiple organizations including the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson Foundation. Her research focuses on investigating the factors contributing to disparities in Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease within the Black community. Using this information, she develops and tests community-partnered interventions to address gaps in access to specialized care and clinical trials in neurodegenerative diseases. Her goal is to develop evidence-based strategies and models that can be used to start moving the dial toward equity in the field.
Is there a figure you've looked up to as a champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion while growing up or in your professional career?
I’ve always looked up to Dr. Linda Suleiman, Orthopedic Surgeon, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University, and Associate Dean of Medical Education at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Similar to Neurology, Orthopedic Surgery has not been historically at the forefront of DEI efforts in medicine. However, throughout her training and as faculty, Dr. Suleiman has dedicated time and resources to increasing equity and inclusion across fields, including specialties where underrepresented minority (URM) representation is extremely low. During my time at Northwestern prior to transitioning to UCLA, I was able to work with Dr. Suleiman on multiple institutional and hospital DEI committees, and we worked together to create a near-peer mentoring program for URM medical students and trainees called the Student to Resident Institutional Vehicle for Excellence (STRIVE) Program. Dr. Suleiman has used transparency, education, modeling, and sponsorship to champion DEI efforts across the country.
How are we actively trying to combat racial disparities toward black individuals seeking a career in medicine? For is, does one stand out as the most impotant to tackle?
We still have a lot of work to do to attract, support, and promote Black individuals in the medical field. There are multiple important areas of opportunity to increase access to the field from exposure and mentorship of Black children to the fields of science and medicine to the successful retention and promotion of Black physicians in medicine. The main two recommendations I have are to (1) create initiatives to combat these disparities and barriers which are specific, targeted, and tangible and (2) ensure that these interventions are well-supported and funded. Some ideas include summer or after-school exposure programs for Black students, specific scholarships and loan repayment for Black individuals pursuing medical school to decrease the financial burden, and recruitment and retention packages for Black physicians.
How can we do better at attracting Black individuals to the field?
Black neurologists are very underrepresented. It is my personal and professional view that it is difficult to become what you haven’t seen. Initiatives that support the recruitment and retention of Black neurologists at academic hospitals where medical students train can have a ripple effect on the Black trainees that they encounter. Recent groups such as Black in Neuro which has had an increasing online and social media presence over the past few years helps to increase the visibility of Black individuals who have pursued a career in neurology and spread resources that can increase interest and access. Sponsoring Black medical students for visiting neurology rotations can be helpful, especially for those students that do not have a large neurology department at their home medical school. The field has made strides recently at acknowledging the problem of the lack of representation of Black neurologists and its affect on patients and the field, but we still have work to do at creating sustainable, well-resourced interventions to address these statistics. The latter point is imperative if we want to have neurologists who better reflect the diversity of the patients we see. I have hope that things are getting better, but we will need commitment and resources from all levels to make significant strides in this area.