By KATE LUCE ANGELL
PITTSBURGH -- Since the civil rights era, the number of black physicians has been rising, with African-Americans now making up 4 percent of U.S. physicians overall.
But while this statistic keeps inching up, it conceals a troubling trend: The number of African-American men entering medical fields has been falling since it peaked in the early 1990s, and it continues to drop across the United States.
William Simmons, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh medical school, said the decline is obvious.
"In a typical class at the University of Pittsburgh, we usually have 16 or 20 African-American students entering medical school, in a class of 150," he said. "This year, four of them are male."
Simmons is also president of the Gateway Medical Society, a southwestern Pennsylvania organization whose mission includes bolstering the numbers of black men in medical fields.
Gateway is affiliated with the National Medical Association, which was founded in 1895, a time when African-American doctors were not allowed to join the American Medical Society and were barred from most medical schools.
Gateway's mission is to "Close the Gap," a phrase that points to a host of problems regarding the black community and health-related fields, including the dwindling number of male doctors.
"African-Americans have the highest incidence of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), of AIDS, the highest death rate of heart disease, of diabetes, of almost any kind of cancer," Simmons pointed out.
Gateway sponsors a number of programs that seek to connect minority and underserved communities with health care and provide health-care education.
And in 2010, Gateway started a "Journey to Medicine" academic mentorship program to specifically address the shortage of male African-American physicians.
Fifteen black sixth-grade boys are chosen from public schools to attend regular educational activities. These teach skills from PowerPoint presentations and public speaking to suturing a cow heart and performing CPR on a medical manikin. Each boy is mentored throughout the program by a Gateway physician, and the 15 progress through the program together.
Now in its second year, the plan is for the program to continue all the way through high school, providing SAT preparation and college application support.
"And we don't want to lose them in college," said Anita Edwards, chair of Gateway's program committee and an internist at Century III Medical Associates in Pittsburgh. "As long as they stay with us, we'll stay with them."
Simmons said the Journey to Medicine program attempts to address some of the many reasons why so few African-American men become physicians.
"We need to tell these boys, 'It's OK to be smart, it's OK to do well in school,'" said Simmons, who pointed to stereotypes and a lack of exposure and role models as significant factors.
"Some of these boys haven't seen many African-Americans who are professionals or physicians," he said. "They can't imagine going to medical school, it's not part of their experience."
Edwards stressed the importance of quality education as another factor at work.
But she indicated that cultural factors may play a role, too.
"I don't think African-American boys get the financial and emotional support from families that females do," she said. "And I think a lot of parents still don't grasp the importance of education."
The problems were difficult, she said, but as physicians, the members of Gateway had little choice about getting involved.
"You either sit on the sidelines and say, 'I'll do nothing,' or you try to change it," Edwards said.
"Why do we need African-American doctors?" added Simmons. "Because they are more likely to serve minority and economically disadvantaged communities, they're more invested in improving the lives of African-American people. And if we keep losing boys the way we are, they'll all be left behind."