Our communities need more doctors who look like me


I’m 26, and have lived virtually my whole life in Hempstead. I’ve seen a lot of health-related issues — low-income people of color, like me, suffering from chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and untreated mental illness. Often they haven’t been able to receive proper treatment for their conditions. I wanted to do something about it, and soon I will be able to, because I’m on my way to becoming a doctor.

There was a one-in-a-million chance that I would ever reach this goal. I’m an African-American woman from a low-income neighborhood, raised in a single-parent household. My father was incarcerated by the time I knew what it meant to have one, and remains imprisoned to this day — though he’s using this time to reflect and to continue his education. My mother, a crossing guard, worked extremely hard to provide for my brother and me, but there were days when the money she made didn’t seem like enough to put food on the table, or ensure that we would keep a roof over our heads, or keep us from falling victim to the violence that plagued our community.

I had to fight every step of the way to become the person I wanted to be. I graduated from Hempstead High School in 2015 in the top 1 percent of my class, and then, thanks to Stony Brook University’s Economic Opportunity Program, I graduated in 2019 with a double major in biology and psychology, and went on to earn a master’s in physiology and biophysics. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so there was no blueprint to follow but the one I created along the way.

I got jobs in the health care field, but becoming a doctor seemed out of reach until I was selected for the Diversity in Medicine pipeline program sponsored by Associated Medical Schools of New York. This post-baccalaureate program at SUNY Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is life-changing. There are classes to prepare me for the rigors of medical school, and a stipend I can use for living expenses so I can focus on my studies. I have mentors to turn to for help.

Most important, if I successfully complete the one-year program, I will go to medical school in the fall, and could be selected to receive AMSNY’s Diversity in Medicine Scholarship to help defray the cost. This amazing program is 100 percent state-funded.

Pipeline programs like this are needed to help diversify the physician workforce. Research has shown that patients are more likely to visit and follow the instructions of doctors who understand their language and culture, resulting in better health outcomes. Yet in New York state, where more than 30 percent of the population identifies as Black or Hispanic, just 13 percent of the state’s doctors come from those groups.

Physicians from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented are more likely to go into primary care and practice in under-served communities, where they are desperately needed. I have seen 30 to 40 people waiting, endlessly, to see a doctor; minor symptoms that were left untreated develop into chronic disease; and people with mental illness who are homeless, unable to pay for the care they need and jaded by past interactions with the health care system. People in these communities do not trust that system. I want to be a doctor who can change that, and earn their trust.

Growing up, I never saw a doctor who looked like me. Now I am one of 24 future physicians in this year’s AMSNY program who want to give back to our communities. I am immensely grateful to our state representatives and Gov. Kathy Hochul for making that possible.

In the past two years, the state’s investment in Diversity in Medicine programs has tripled. This funding must continue, and even increase, so more people like us can become doctors and leaders of change for our communities.

Shakia Miller is scheduled to complete the AMSNY Diversity in Medicine program in May.