‘You don’t look like a doctor’: Documentary film looks at the biases and challenges Black women physicians face
|Published: 01-26-2024 12:42 PM
Dr. Khama Ennis had come a long way in her medical career.
Until 2022, the Amherst resident had spent about two decades in emergency medicine, including a number of years as chief of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, as well as president of the hospital’s medical staff.
It was a job she loved, she says, as she relished the challenge and responsibility of providing care and comfort to patients during a suddenly stressful time for them.
But Ennis was also troubled by a couple of bleak statistics. For much of her time at CDH, she was one of only two Black doctors in the hospital, while she also knew she was part of another tiny number: Black women represent just 2.8% of physicians in the United States.
These days, Ennis has shifted gears, developing a private practice, Intentional Health, that’s focused on wellness and integrative medicine. And she’s created a broader project, “Faces of Medicine,” that’s designed to raise awareness of the racial disparities in the profession.
“Faces of Medicine” is a four-part documentary film series that profiles a number of Black female physicians, telling the stories of how they became doctors and the barriers they’ve faced along the way. The first episode screens Feb. 1 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, with additional screenings in Greenfield (Feb. 16) and Holyoke (Feb. 29).
In the film, a number of doctors, including Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of CDH, talk about how they got into medicine and how they’ve fared in a mostly white profession — one in which patients sometimes don’t react well to a doctor with a dark face, and staff can reveal their own level of bias about BIPIOC patients.
As Ennis said during a recent phone interview, she once introduced herself to a white patient at CDH while wearing her lab coat, her name badge and a stethoscope, only to have the man say “You don’t look like a doctor.”
“So I said, ‘What does a doctor look like?’” recalled Ennis, who was born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. as a young girl. “And he said, ‘Well, taller.’ I told him I was 5’8” and that seemed tall enough … and I suggested we move on.”
Another time she was tending to a white man who’d suffered a shoulder dislocation but resisted her request to take his shirt off so that she could better probe the injury. Finally, the shirt came off — to reveal a swastika tattoo on the man’s shoulder.‘
Ennis had been thinking about these issues for some time — she’s written about about her experiences for the Washington Post and been interviewed by the Boston Globe — when in 2021 she conceived of the idea of making documentary films that would profile Black women physicians.
“I was thinking not just about how we can improve health equity but how we can show young girls of color that a career in medicine is possible,” she said. “If they don’t see any role models, how can they imagine doing something like this themselves?”
In 2022, in part because of family challenges — she had to tend to her ill father, for instance — she left CDH and connected with a small film production company in Brooklyn, New York, Home Base Studios, to begin the process of filmmaking. Through her own connections and word of mouth, she found a range of Black female physicians to interview, including several in other states.
She left CDH with some regrets — “I still love the place,” she said — but she added that “I needed to make a move.”
Part of the goal with “Faces of Medicine” is to bring attention to the issue of health equity. The film cites a number of studies showing patients of color have better health outcomes when seen by physicians of color — just as those outcomes can be poorer when patients are treated by some white physicians, perhaps due to unconscious bias.
The film series also aims to show a side of doctors people normally don’t get to see, Ennis says: the personal stories, the ups and downs of someone’s life.
“There aren’t many opportunities to get the backstory on the medical people in our lives,” she said. “It tends to be one-directional, where the doctors ask all the questions about patients.”
And in conducting her interviews, she noted, “Folks have been surprisingly honest and very brave at times. The conversations have been very good.”
For example, Dr. Valerie Stone, a general internist and an HIV/AIDS focused infectious disease specialist in Boston, talks about growing up in New Jersey, where she was very close to her grandmother. She died of cancer, Stone says, after doctors dismissed her complaints of pain and said her problems were connected to drinking.
Her grandmother was not a drinker, Stone says. “But she had been judged on her perceived lifestyle” by white doctors, she adds.
Stone, who also teaches medicine at Harvard Medical School, said her grandmother’s experience was a key inspiration for her to go to medical school.
“I wanted to become a doctor who was going to give great care to women, to Black people, and also be sure to listen to patients and believe them and figure out how to best optimize their care,” she says.
Dr. Rose Cesar, a gastroenterologist in Greenfield who’s in the Baystate Health system, grew up in Haiti, where she often went on rounds with her mother, a nurse; that was her first inkling, she says, that she wanted to help others, too.
Yet as a rare Black physician in Franklin County, she’s had some strange interactions with largely white patients and staff, like the time someone assumed she was part of the custodial crew and told her to clean up blood that had spilled on the floor.
The doctors also talk about never having seen a Black woman physician until they entered medical school. The first for Ennis was Dr. Thea James, who’s interviewed in the film. Today James holds a number of leadership positions at Boston Medical Center, where she also teaches emergency medicine. She’s won a number of honors for her work.
So has Ennis, who in 2023 received the annual Woman Physician Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), which honors outstanding leadership and contributions to patients and the medical profession by a woman physician.
The award includes recognition of a video Ennis created for the Hampshire and Franklin County Districts of the MMS that is now shown to commonwealth doctors to help them meet license requirements for implicit bias education.
Ennis hopes those credentials and the progress so far on “Faces of Medicine” will help with her ongoing fundraising efforts for the additional parts of the documentary series. She’s hoping to screen the second film, which profiles another group of doctors, this summer while laying the groundwork for the third and fourth segments.
She wants to make the films available in a number of settings — community centers like Bombyx, schools, hospitals and other workplaces, and online — to make the case for more Black female physicians and to raise greater awareness of bias in medical settings, even from well-respected colleagues.
“My goal is to approach people with an open heart and open mind, and hopefully this project will get done,” she said.
“Faces of Medicine” screens Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bombyx Center and will be followed by a discussion with Dr. Ennis. General admission tickets are $15; minority premed students attend for free. Donations to the film series can be made at facesofmedicine.org.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.