California’s Only HBCU Aims to Solve Black Doctor Shortage

Charles Drew University, the only historically Black university in California, will launch a new MD program in a state where only 3% of physicians are Black.

PUBLISHED DEC 15, 2022 9:32 A.M.
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Allison Leggett, a fourth-year student at Charles Drew University, on campus in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022

Allison Leggett, a fourth-year student at Charles Drew University, on campus in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022   Photo by Lauren Justice for Cal Matters


Medical student Allison Leggett knows the power of her presence as a Black health professional. During her clinical training she met a young patient with social-developmental delays, who was very sick and spent a lot of time in the hospital alone because her father, her sole caretaker, worked three jobs. “At first I thought she didn’t like me, but when I told her it was my last day and I was leaving, she started crying!” said Leggett “Afterwards, her dad pulled me aside and told me, ‘I don’t think you realize how much of an impact you made on her.’”

That moment also had an impact on Leggett, who realized how representation at the bedside can put a family at ease. “Having a Black physician on the team really made him feel comfortable, especially since he couldn’t be there all the time advocating for his daughter, and he really felt like we were taking care of his baby girl,” she said. “He was extremely scared, but he knew we were fighting for him and for her.” 

As a student, Leggett wants to fight for the community that raised her, which is why she began her medical career at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California’s only historically Black university. The university has graduated more than 900 physicians since 1981 through a joint program with the University of California Los Angeles.

Next year, Charles Drew will start its own medical school in the hopes of training even more culturally-competent doctors like Leggett. 

Sometimes the difference between great care and a patient slipping through the cracks can come down to who is in the room, research shows. A 2020 study, for example, found that Black infant mortality in the first year of life is halved when treated by a Black physician. But in California, Black doctors have for decades made up around 3% of the state’s total physicians. The nationwide figure is 5%, according to a Georgetown Review study, compared to 14% of the country’s population. 

One reason the study cites for the shortage of Black physicians: a lack of medical schools that serve Black students. Of the country’s 102 historically Black colleges and universities,  only six are accredited to operate medical schools, but a recent push for medical equity and diversity has opened pathways for more accreditation.

“Many African American medical students are interested in treating African Americans and in closing the health disparities gap – and by opening this new MD Program, CDU provides greater opportunities to study medicine in a setting where the mission of the institution is the same – closing the gap,” said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the inaugural dean for Charles Drew’s new College of Medicine. 

Founded in wake of the Watts riots in 1966, Charles Drew trains nurses and physicians and assistants and offers specialized residency programs, in addition to the joint medical degree. Its mission is, “excellent health and wellness for all in a world without health disparities.” 

Medical students in its joint UCLA program do their pre-clinical training at UCLA, focusing on the same subjects as students at other medical schools. But they also get the support and resources of an HBCU, and the opportunity to be part of a diverse student body that more accurately reflects the communities they hope to impact in the future  – 33% of Charles Drew students identify as Black, 22% as Hispanic or Latino and 22% as Asian. Leggett says the connections she has with her peers have been critical as she navigates medical school, an experience she described as “like drinking from a fire hose,” and including having to deal with microaggressions and racism while doing clinical rotations.

 A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that Black medical students at HBCUs felt a greater sense of belonging and reported higher confidence in their academic abilities compared to those attending predominantly white medical schools

“One of the reasons I chose to go to Drew in the first place is because they are very clear and steadfast in their mission to work with our most marginalized communities, and it wasn’t just by words, it was through action,” said Leggett, who’s in her fifth year of the joint Charles Drew-UCLA program.  “Drew was my first interview and I fell in love with the community, I fell in love with the students and the home environment.” 

Read more of California’s Only HBCU Aims to Solve Black Doctor Shortage on CalMatters.

Alyssa Story is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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