Twenty-four Black students have been accepted to the University of Toronto (U of T) faculty of medicine for the class of 2024 — the largest cohort of Black medical students in Canadian history.
The Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA) at U of T shared the news to Twitter on Sunday.
“We wanted to take a little break from the bad news to bring you all something amazing!” the association tweeted.
“We’ve just learned that there have been 24 Black medical students admitted to (U of T Medicine) for the class of 2024!!… Welcome to the family.”
As protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality continue in the U.S. and Canada after the death of George Floyd, BSMA co-president Semir Bulle says this is a step in the right direction — but there’s still more work to be done to combat systemic racism.
“Representation is only one step, as we are really asking for empowerment and a culture change in medicine so that we can properly advocate for the health of our own communities,” Bulle told Global News.
“More Black bodies in medical school means nothing if the toxic culture around medicine doesn’t change as well.”
Fatimah Roble, 24, is a member of the group of newly admitted Black medical students, and hopes the new cohort is only the beginning of a larger shift in Canadian health care.
“I think the University of Toronto is definitely taking a step in the right direction by not just promoting diversity but making meaningful and impactful change,” Roble told Global News.
“I’d like to see other schools follow in their footsteps.”
Roble has seen first-hand how a lack of representation in medicine can negatively impact a patient’s outcomes. She made a point to learn more about the social determinants of health during her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo but says it was mostly “self-directed.”
“I’m glad to know that (the U of T) has social determinants as part of their medical school curriculum,” Roble said.
“There’s lots of research that shows when you have a physician who looks like you, you have better health outcomes.”
According to the WHO, social determinants of health include: social and economic factors like income, discrimination and access to quality food, health care and education, all of which can impact a person’s health and how long they will live.
A Black woman herself, Roble is excited about what her cohort at the U of T medical school means for the future of Canadian health care.
“I’m glad to hear that Canadians will now have an increased likelihood of getting a Black doctor,” she said.
A 2019 literature review from the U of T found that Black Canadian women may be under-screened for cervical and breast cancer due to the lack of health data collected about Black Canadians more broadly.
Black Canadians make up the third-largest minority group in the country, but researchers could find only 23 studies pertaining to breast cancer, cervical cancer and Black Canadian women within the last 15 years.
This is especially alarming because there is some evidence to suggest Black women could be predisposed to worse outcomes from these diseases.
A 2016 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black American women are more likely than white women to get triple-negative breast cancer, a highly aggressive type of cancer known to return after treatment.
“Although this scoping review was focused on breast and cervical cancer in the Black Canadian population, the bigger issue is the fact that in Canada, so much is unknown when it comes to health disparities faced by minority groups, whether due to race (or) racism, ethnicity or culture,” researchers said in the paper.
In reviewing the available data, researchers also found variation across different Black communities.
“Black Caribbean women appear to actually get screened at the same rate or even higher than white Canadian women, but Black women from sub-Saharan Africa appear less likely to be screened,” lead author Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom previously told Global News.
Without research into the health of minority groups, differences like these go unnoticed and policy can’t be updated to reflect the group’s unique needs, effectively leaving them vulnerable.
Nnorom says this contributes to the larger problem of systemic racism in Canadian health care, which can affect everything from the individual patient to the medical trials that receive funding and the ones that don’t.
“On the individual level … the woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer is saying … ‘I need you to believe me. I need some answers about how this could affect me (as a Black woman),’” Nnorom said.
U of T hopes its medical program will encourage other schools to confront the issue of representation in Canadian health care.
“As a faculty, we are committed to doing better to address the under-representation of Black physicians in medicine,” said Dr. Trevor Young, dean of the faculty of medicine at U of T.
“As health leaders, we must confront racism for the epidemic it is.”
In 2017, the school implemented the Black Student Application Program in an effort to “increase and support Black medical student representation.” Since then, Young says Black acceptance rates have slowly risen — 14 Black students were accepted in 2018 and 15 in 2019.
“We stand behind and support efforts to promote equity and diversity and are accountable for the results,” Young said.
“We want our medical school to reflect the diversity of the Canadian population and are taking steps to achieve that. We know we have farther to go.”