Duke Psychiatrist, Dr. Damon Tweedy, Reflects on Race In Medicine

Dr. Damon Tweedy spoke about race and medicine at the Aspen Institute. LEIGH VOGEL/THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
Dr. Damon Tweedy spoke about race and medicine at the Aspen Institute.

Dr. Damon Tweedy was one of the first African-Americans to earn a scholarship to Duke Medical School, back in 1996, when the school was trying to encourage more diversity in its ranks.

The son of a grocery store worker, Tweedy grew up in an all-black neighborhood where his older brother was the only person he knew who went to college without a sports scholarship. Now a psychiatrist at Duke, Tweedy says he has been frustrated about the quality of medical care he can provide for patients who are uninsured, many of whom are African-American. He has also written, in a New York Times best-selling book, “Black Man in a White Coat,” about the racially charged experiences he had as a student and young doctor.

He spoke with STAT about his experiences and views on today’s medical climate at the Spotlight Health conference, part of the Aspen Ideas Festival. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What do you think it has meant for your patients to have an African-American psychiatrist?

I’d see a white patient [in my practice], and the first thing they’d say is “My friend is black.” Sometimes people would be curious, almost like you’re some sort of oddity. How did this guy come to this place?

Unfortunately, it is a bit of an oddity to be an African-American doctor, isn’t it?

The numbers peaked in the mid-90s. It got to where maybe 6.5 to 7 percent of entering medical school students were African-American. The numbers have since gone down.

Among practicing doctors the number’s actually about 4 percent. This poses a real problem, because so many of the places where doctors train are places with very large African-American communities.

The clinic I was in during my training in psychiatry, about 50 percent of patients were African-American. I was the only African-American provider. It was sort of this weird dynamic that I [should] be the one to see all these patients. It created this unrealistic, untenable dynamic.

Is there an obvious or easy solution to this lack of black doctors?

Clearly there’s a pipeline issue — getting folks in the pipeline who are going to be prepared along the way. That’s a huge part. Some schools take a very passive approach to recruitment.

Has the medical school at Duke changed in the two decades since you were among a handful of African-American students there?

Duke has been one of the schools that has been among the best. It’s been a real leader nationally.

Click here to read more.

Karen Weintraub