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Dr. Uché Blackstock
Physician, Author, & Founder/CEO, Advancing Health Equity
Dr. Uché Blackstock is recognized as a leading voice during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one who provided context and insight into the inequity in the medical field, specifically as it pertained to how Black Americans received care during the health crisis. However, it was actually just before COVID-19 that Dr. Blackstock stepped away from her career in academic medicine to focus on Advancing Health Equity, an organization working with medical institutions to address bias and racism within the system. “I wrote this piece about why Black faculty, like me, are leaving academic medicine and it ended up going viral,” she says of an op-ed she penned in January 2020 that expressed the bias she witnessed as a doctor and cited concerns such as the devastating maternal mortality rates among Black women. “I thought that it was me telling my story. And then I got this flood of feedback from people that were like, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you so much. I feel the same way.’”
For Dr. Blackstock, this work of advocating for equity within healthcare feels more like a life purpose than a career, and she documents just that in her debut book release, Legacy: A Black Physician Reckons With Racism In Medicine, available January 23. However, where legacy is concerned, Dr. Blackstock already has quite an incredible one. Brooklyn-born and -based, and Harvard-educated, Dr. Blackstock, is a second-generation physician, following in the career footsteps of her mother. Her twin sister, Dr. Oni Blackstock, did, too. Legacy’s publishing not only marks a new career milestone for the doctor and now author, but its pages bring Dr. Blackstock’s personal and professional experience to the surface to educate, connect, and call action from within and outside the medical field. Ahead of its debut, we chatted with Dr. Blackstock about Legacy, legacy, and why she hopes doctors everywhere speak up more.
AS YOU BEGAN YOUR CAREER AS A PHYSICIAN, FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF YOUR MOTHER'S LEGACY, WHAT WERE SOME OF THE EXAMPLES YOU WANTED TO EMULATE?
“Growing up, I thought most physicians were Black women because of my mom and the fact that she led a local organization of Black women physicians here in Brooklyn. She would have my sister and I come to those meetings with her. We were always around women who looked like my mom, who were also physicians, who were doing incredible work in our community. In my head, I was like, ‘I want to be just like these women.’ It wasn't until I got older that I realized there are less than 3% Black women of all physicians. We actually are a rarity. It was kind of a shock to recognize because I had all of these women to look to as role models. Having them as role models allowed me to dream big and to recognize that I could accomplish maybe what other people have doubts about accomplishing.
“My mom in particular also had wonderful relationships with her patients. She saw them as whole human beings. And so when she was interacting with them, she wouldn't just ask them about their medical problems. She would ask them about how their family is doing. ‘How's that friend you mentioned?’ ‘What's going on at work?’ Our current healthcare system really doesn't allow physicians to interact with patients in that way, to see them holistically and recognize that when you're in the room with your patient, it's not just you and your patient. It's you, your patient, their family, their friends, whatever's happening at their job, whatever's happening in their communities, because we know now all of that impacts how healthy someone is. My mother was that early role model to hammer in that message to me.”
WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU, UCHÉ, POSSESS THAT HAVE SERVED YOU MOST IN YOUR CAREER THUS FAR?
“I've always been a purpose-driven person. In everything that I do, I never viewed work as just work. I always have wanted to get something out of it and to give something to others. In my trajectory over the last few years, I was in academic medicine and recognized that I wasn't able to do the work that I wanted to do authentically. I realized that I was in misalignment and that if I wanted to fulfill my purpose, vision, and values, I had to create another environment. So I founded my organization, Advancing Health Equity, which is a health equity consulting firm to address racial health inequities. I had to take that leap of faith because I knew my purpose.”
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR MOMENT WHEN THE IDEA TO WRITE LEGACY, YOUR UPCOMING BOOK, CAME TO MIND?
“It was when I made that transition from academic medicine to working on my company. That happened, of course, in early 2020 when the pandemic revealed all of these deep fissures in all of our systems, but especially our healthcare system. I was working in urgent care at the time and I started writing about what I was seeing. I thought it was really important to give voice to what I was witnessing and to make sure that everyone was witness [to the health inequity of the COVID-19 pandemic].”
LET’S TALK MORE ABOUT LEGACY. WHAT HOPE OR CALL TO ACTION DO YOU WANT TO INSTILL IN THOSE WHO WILL READ IT?
“This is the book that I wish I could have read before I went to medical school. And it's the book that I hope a lot of pre-med or medical students get to read because a lot of what I write about are things that I didn't learn. Some of the historical pieces, the social commentary that I didn't learn about in my medical education or my training that I had to learn about as a practicing physician. I felt like there were huge gaps in my knowledge.
“One thing that's important that I want current and future physicians to understand is that when we see illness and disease in our patients, it's not just necessarily because they made poor choices. It is because of other factors that we call the ‘social determinants of health’. It's because of where they live. It's because of the quality of education or the kind of job that they have. I want us to have a better idea of how we think about our patients in a more holistic way as opposed to just saying, ‘You need to eat better, you need to drink less alcohol, and here's a prescription.’ I want us to view—like my mother did—our patients as whole human beings and that's how we can best serve them.”
"One thing that's important that I want current and future physicians to understand is that when we see illness and disease in our patients, it's not just necessarily because they made poor choices."
IN BECOMING AN ADVOCATE AND AUTHOR, DID YOU LOOK TO OTHER DOCTORS WHO HAD DONE SOMETHING SIMILAR? OR SET AN EXAMPLE OF BEING VOCAL?
“That's the thing: Medicine overall is a very conservative discipline. When we all go into medical school, we are these really dynamic, interesting people. And I have to say that the education and training sometimes wear it out of us. Because it's so intense, we're focused on what we need to learn. You sometimes lose what is unique about us and all those other activities that we used to do to make us interesting. But even more so, we don't learn a lot about advocacy.
“You would think physicians are primed to be the ones to speak up for our patients because we have this very close relationship with them. They tell us things they don't even tell their family. We know what's impacting their lives. So while I do think that we are so perfectly positioned to be the ones to advocate for our patients, often we're not the ones that are doing that. And so I wish more physicians would get vocal, would advocate around housing, education, or other issues outside of healthcare even, that impact our patients. I almost think it's our obligation to talk about those issues or at least advocate on behalf of our patients or the communities we serve.”
WHAT’S A PIECE OF ADVICE THAT YOU WISH YOU HAD RECEIVED AT THE START OF THE PROCESS OF WRITING YOUR FIRST BOOK?
“The piece of advice that I wish I had is to never doubt the gifts that you have. Sometimes, especially as women, as Black women, we may find ourselves in environments where we feel like we're undervalued and underappreciated and we forget that we have these beautiful gifts to share with the world. If you find yourself in that environment, you’ve got to make some really important decisions, whether it's changing something, whether it's leaving, whether it's creating my own company, which is something I had never thought about, which is something that physicians don't even think about. Also, recognizing that once you find that alignment, opportunities and abundance will come to you in ways that you probably never had even considered.”
HOW ABOUT ANY ADVICE YOU WISH YOU RECEIVED BEFORE WRITING THIS BOOK?
“Especially with writing a memoir, I didn't recognize just how vulnerable it was going to make me feel because it's like you're putting all of your life information about your family, your experiences out there to the world to share. But I also hope that vulnerability allows people to connect with different parts of my story, and I think it will.”
LEGACY COMES OUT NEXT MONTH. WHAT LEGACY DO YOU HOPE THIS PIECE OF WORK WILL BRING?
“There have been other books about discrimination in medicine, but I think that this book—because I am a physician, a second generation physician, and writing about my experiences as a physician and a patient, and I'm bringing in social commentary and bringing in history—will help readers connect the dots to understanding this issue a lot more. My hope is that it will motivate them and galvanize them to take action. I do have the last chapter in the book which is a call to action for different groups within medicine, outside of medicine. So I hope that every person who reads this can take something with them to really, truly make a difference.”