Fresh Faces || The University of Alberta Black Medical Students’ Association

U of A’s BMSA looks for increased Black representation in the student body and faculty, and enhanced training for future doctors to better care for racialized communities.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 14 September 2020

The Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA) was launched last year by a small but dedicated group of friends, drawn together by shared experience. Not even a year old now, the BMSA has already forged a strong identity and begun several successful and transformative initiatives.

We spoke to president Ibrahim Sadiq and Anulika Nwakaeze, two of the seven members of the BMSA, to find out more about who they are and why this work is so important not just for them, but for all their fellow future health-care professionals.

Tell us a bit about the BMSA and what it means to be part of the group.

Sadiq: The BMSA launched out of the need for current Black students to feel seen in the medical program. A group of friends with shared plights and experiences, we saw an opportunity to have a long-lasting impact on Black students that would come after us, and on our communities at large.

Nwakaeze: Being a part of the BMSA has significantly impacted my journey in medicine. I finally feel seen and heard, a part of a community working towards the same goals.

Sadiq: We no longer want the normalization of our underrepresentation in medicine. We no longer want racism and microaggressions to go unheeded. We no longer want disparate health outcomes of our communities. Our unity empowers us to be agents of change locally at our university and community at large.

What are some goals of the BMSA?

Sadiq: The BMSA is determined to address systemic racism and barriers in admissions, curriculum, wellness and community engagement in medical education and to advocate for improvement of health-care outcomes for minorities.

We want increased Black representation in admissions, faculty leadership, student learning opportunities, and to help prospective students overcome barriers to a career in medicine. We want to encourage a culture in which all incoming students feel welcomed, appreciated and capable. Most important, we want to ensure that all students going through the MD program have the training they need to provide excellent care for Black patients, as they do with every other demographic within our diverse community.

Why is it important to increase Black representation in the health-care professions?

Nwakaeze: Research has demonstrated that Black people receive a lower quality of care in medicine. Expectant Black mothers are more likely to suffer morbidity and mortality related to adverse pregnancy outcomes, and Black people are less likely to receive adequate pain medications due to a false belief that we somehow have a higher pain tolerance than the rest of the population. Studies have also shown that Black babies are more likely to survive if they have Black doctors and Black men receive better health care when they are treated by Black health-care professionals. If we increase enrollment of qualified Black applicants into medical school, we can improve the health outcomes of Black peoples.

What are some of your early initiatives?

Nwakaeze: We hosted two very well-attended webinars this summer—one was about the disproportionate health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black populations, and the other provided information to prospective applicants about the journey to medical school. We developed and published our Calls to Action, and have since been very involved in actualizing a Black Applicant Admissions Process for the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. With an ally from my class, I organized an Anti-Racism Book Club, a safe space for medical students to discuss literature related to anti-Black racism and white privilege, and how these critical issues impact health care.

What drew you to medicine?

Sadiq: I’ve always been interested in medicine from as far back as I can remember. I like the idea of bringing ease to my patients and helping them get back to pursuing their dreams and aspirations. I’m excited by the challenge of combining my knowledge of physiological systems with considerations of patients’ social circumstances to come up with the best plan of action for them. And medicine is ever evolving, which means the way I practise in 10 years might be entirely different from the way I practise now. It will always be interesting.

Nwakaeze: I grew up in Nigeria in a privileged position and couldn’t help but notice how difficult it was for people to access basic necessities like health care. From as early as age five, I’ve nurtured an almost single-minded goal to become a doctor so that I could help and heal my community.

How does your cultural identity inform your experience as a medical student and future physician?

Sadiq: As a Muslim, my beliefs around the sanctity of life and inevitability of death make medicine a rewarding undertaking, having the privilege of preserving and protecting the lives of patients and providing ease and comfort to them in their final moments. My beliefs also help me be respectful in interactions with patients who have a spiritual or religious background.

As a Black man, I’m driven to be the best version of myself and a positive ambassador for the communities I belong to. As one of few Black students in my high-school graduating class, one of two Black students in my undergraduate degree, and the only Black student in my MD class, pressure has been a longtime friend. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to receive a quality education and work towards a rewarding career, but there is always an underlying anxiety about performing in order to avoid stereotype threat. Any success I have can be attributed to and shared with my community, but so can my failures.

Nwakaeze: It’s a privilege and an honour to represent my community. I am happy to be a role model for other young Black girls and boys who dream of a career in medicine. I naturally gravitate towards fields where I feel that Black people are underrepresented and underserved. I aspire to become an anesthesiologist, and I’m interested in obstetrical care and chronic pain management, areas where Black people do not receive the same quality of care as the rest of the population.

What will “success” look like for the BMSA?

Sadiq: Success for the BMSA would look like more culturally competent physicians in the graduating classes of the MD program. It would look like more Black students in each incoming class, and more Black faculty in teaching and leadership positions. More students would feel empowered to have meaningful discussions about race, intersectionality and the impacts on health outcomes. The Faculty would always consult students who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) before making decisions about BIPOC students.

Success would look like fewer incidents of racism and humiliation being reported by students. It would look like more engagement with the communities underrepresented in our population. Above all, success would be knowing that this fight was the shared responsibility of all students and faculty, not just of those who are underrepresented.

As with all things systemic, the road to success is a long one. But we look forward to enjoying our victories along the way.

The BMSA is made up of Ibrahim Sadiq, Anulika Nwakaeze, Adesewa Adeleye, Yusef Yousuf and newest members Ruth Legese, Fisayo Aruleba and Chieme Arisakwe, who have started their MD program this fall.