'We’re missing brilliance out there': UBC medicine creates new admission stream for Black applicants

To address the under-representation of Black medical students at UBC and Black physicians in BC at large, UBC’s faculty of medicine will be rolling out a Black MD student admissions stream this summer.

Starting this summer, Black applicants will have the option to write an essay about their lived experiences and have their applications reviewed by a sub-committee largely composed of Black stakeholders in the BC medical community. This will include current medical students, physicians, residents, faculty and community members.

The faculty of medicine doesn’t have disaggregated racial data, but is working with the university to develop a collection and reporting system to better understand how to support racialized and underrepresented student populations, according to Dr. Shahin Shirzad, the MD undergraduate program’s assistant dean of admissions.

Kimberly Thomas, a second-year student in UBC’s Northern Medical Program and also the western regional director of the Black Medical Students Association of Canada (BMSAC), believes that this admissions stream will make it a fairer process for Black applicants.

“We’re missing brilliance out there with our current application system,” she said.

Thomas, who is the only Black person in her cohort of 288 students, said that unconscious bias in the general MD admissions stream “sort of colours the way people rate activities, or even views an applicant in an interview.”

“It’s so much more than just numbers or quotas … It’s really about equity and ensuring everyone’s on the same playing field when applying to medical school,” Thomas said.

The first Black admissions stream in a Canadian medical school was the Black Student Application Program (BSAP) at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Launched in 2018, there has been almost a ten-fold increase in Black medical students, according to Ike Okafor, senior officer of service learning and diversity outreach at Temerty.

Okafor said having Black community members in the admissions process provides applicants with “cultural safety” as they feel like their experiences will be understood and valued.

“For many students … in some cases, it’s the first time they’ve been in these interview scenarios, where they actually have interviewers that are Black,” he said. “People can [now] bring their full selves to the table.”

Okafor said he has shared information about U of T’s admission program so other universities could create similar streams, largely in response to national and local organizational efforts such as the BMSAC’s in 2020.

However, BSAP is just one of U of T’s efforts to increase Black representation in their medicine faculty. It also has mentorship programs for Black high school and undergraduate students and financial aid for application fees, among other programs.

Dr. Rahel Zewude, a third-year internal medicine resident in UBC's faculty of medicine and founder of Black Physicians of BC (BPBC), said that UBC needs to implement similar programs to fully address Black underrepresentation. She added that Black medical trainees and physicians face marginalization and institutionalized racism, making it challenging for them to succeed.

“When you see under-representation, it’s not an accident that there aren’t as many Black people,” she said.

This also affects Black communities' health, who are wary of the medical system and hesitant to see a physician because of the historic medical racism and current experiences with racism in the healthcare system. Black people are often hesitant to see a physician, according to Zewude.

“There is a worry that you will not be treated with dignity and your complaints may not be taken seriously,” she said.

Zewude was heavily involved in both the advocacy for the Black MD admissions stream and its development at both U of T and UBC In October 2020, Black Physicians of BC sent a call to action letter to UBC medicine, outlining ways to address systemic racism.

In August 2021, she and other BPBC physicians and students worked alongside Shirzad to create a working group and develop the new pathway.

Shirzad said that UBC’s faculty of medicine plans to implement mentorship and outreach programs to reach younger Black people. He added that this year they have started collecting disaggregated demographic data from their applicants, which the faculty hopes will provide a better understanding as to why Black students are underrepresented.

“We recognize that having a diverse group of individuals in medical school is really important when you’re treating a very diverse group of patients in BC,” Shirzad said.