One of these is not like the other

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It’s been awhile… my apologies! I’ve been trapped in my apartment studying for our second neuro exam and a couple weeks ago I traveled to New Orleans for a conference. The conference was for Student National Medical Assoc (SNMA), a student group which I have the joy of being involved with at my school’s chapter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with SNMA, it targets med students of color, minorities, and first generation scholars. While I’m technically not considered a minority (in the medical field), as someone who wants to work in a medically underserved area, SNMA seemed like a good fit for me. Also as only one of four Asian-American students in my class, I feel like a minority more often than not.

Let me start with a story from our NOLA trip that I feel sums up my conference experience (aside from eating as many beignets as fast as I could shovel them in). At a conference after party one night, I was getting busy on the dance floor. I think my girl T-swift said it best when she described her dancing as “a baby giraffe learning to walk.” Yep, that was me. Then something happened… the DJ started to play “Back that Ass Up” and the room instantly fell silent, like a kind of lull before the storm. My friend grabbed my arm, looked at me with both exhilaration and terror in her eyes, and said “Jenny. You are not prepared for what is about to happen.” She was right. If you haven’t been in a similar situation before, see this buzzfeed for appropriate response.

This little anecdote was one of the most evident examples of how “not prepared” I was for this conference. If you haven’t already guessed it by now, I was one of the only Asian students at this conference. Most everyone in our chapter and even at the national level of SNMA is Black or African. Given that SNMA is focused on minority medical students and serving minority populations, this racial make-up should not shock you. Yet, this poses some interesting questions, one in particular that I’ve wrestled with for several years since I began to consider practicing medicine with a focus on health disparities: Why am I one of the only Asian students at this conference?

At present, it’s no secret we have a shortage of med students of color, moreover students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including inner-city, rural, international, and first generation to attend college. Yet health disparities for these general population groups continue to widen. The numbers just don’t add up. The supply of black and hispanic physicians does not nearly meet the demand of their patient counterparts. That’s where I come in, the random Asian girl who found herself at a conference in New Orleans for minority med students. Throughout the conference, I sometimes felt like an outsider looking in. Did I belong here at this conference? What part do I have to play in serving a community where I don’t look anything at all like my patient population? I was explaining this to an older med friend (who is herself Black), and she pointed out that under-represented groups could not have gotten to where they are now without non-minorities standing by their side. While true, does that historical vantage point have as much weight today in modern medicine?

A relevant experience: during my research in undergrad studying diabetes disparities on the South Side of Chicago, I had two PI’s, one a Chinese male and the other a Black female. During community outreach days, our team would set up shop at local events around the South Side to do basic physical exams and check-ups. Take a guess at which doctor all the community members would line up to see. There is an inherent trust when your doctor looks like you. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Yet it makes me wonder what sort of role I will have as a practicing physician in such communities. Will I always feel like an outsider looking in? And if so, will it even matter? If I believe that my patients have a voice worth listening to, stories worth being amplified from a physician’s platform, then does it even matter that I feel like “a baby giraffe learning to walk” when the DJ puts on Back that Ass Up?

Thoughtfully yours,
J

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