Opinion: To save Black lives, we need more Black doctors

A doctor administers a COVID-19 swab test on a person in a parking lot. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, was mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick is President of Howard University. Dr. David M. Carlisle is President and CEO of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice is President and Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine. Dr. James Hildreth is President and CEO of Meharry Medical College. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)The Black community has suffered the highest death rates from Covid-19, and the numbers are staggering. Black people are nearly three times more likely than White people to contract the virus, and twice as likely to die from it, according to a report from the National Urban League.

There are many factors that contribute to these disparities, including the fact that Black people are disproportionately represented in essential jobs that cannot be performed at home, and they are more likely to live in housing with a high number of occupants.
Lack of access to quality and affordable health care is also an important factor -- and one facet of the issue is glaring but has gotten very little attention: There are too few Black doctors.
For a number of reasons -- including patient trust, physician engagement, and cultural awareness -- Black patients overall have better outcomes when they are treated by Black doctors. A wealth of data supports this, including a recent study that found Black newborns treated by Black physicians had higher rates of survival.
    Black doctors are also more likely to practice in communities where the lack of access to quality care -- including preventative care -- is most acute. Better care leads to better health and fewer medical bills, which leads to more economic opportunity and stronger finances -- because there is a direct correlation between health and wealth.
    In other words: If we had more Black doctors, we would save more Black lives -- and also make progress in closing the racial wealth gap.
    Currently, Black people make up about 13% of the US population but, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5% of practicing medical doctors. And while this disparity has been growing for years -- especially among Black male doctors -- the coronavirus threatens to make it far worse.
    Across higher education, nearly 70% of Black students who drop out cite debt as a factor -- and that was before the pandemic struck.
    Without help, it's likely that even more students who might otherwise have pursued medical degrees will now decide against it. And the financial effects of the pandemic may significantly limit schools' ability to provide student aid at scale. The shortage of Black doctors could become even more acute, with deadly consequences.
    It's encouraging that both Democrats and Republicans have supported including more funding for historically Black colleges and universities in the next round of stimulus funding. But private philanthropy has an important role to play, too -- especially when so many lives are at stake.
    So on Thursday, America's four historically Black medical schools are joining Bloomberg Philanthropies in a new partnership to increase the number of Black doctors by addressing one of the biggest obstacles: student debt. Bloomberg Philanthropies is committing $100 million to America's four historically Black medical schools (HBMSs) over the next four years to provide scholarships up to $100,000 to nearly every medical student currently enrolled and receiving financial aid.
    The four schools -- Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science -- produced as many Black medical school graduates over the last 10 years as the top 10 non-HBMSs with the highest number of Black graduates.
    These four schools tend to have higher graduation rates of Black students than medical schools overall -- in part because increasing diversity in medicine and offering medical services for communities most in need are ingrained in their mission, so they provide more support to ensure students overcome obstacles and graduate than many other schools do.
    The cost of education should never be an obstacle. A number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have created programs that provide support to undergraduates who are considering a career in medicine -- including internships, mentorships, and tuition assistance. But more aid is needed -- more must be done to tackle the dearth of Black doctors more directly and to help Black institutions fulfil their missions.
    The $100 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies reflects its support for organizations and institutions that have proven track records of increasing economic and social mobility. This is the first investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies to build out its new Greenwood Initiative, which aims to increase generational wealth among Black families and address decades of underinvestment in Black communities.
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    One of the most outrageously unacceptable statistics in American life is that Black families have on average only 1/10th the wealth of White families. The disparities are seen not only in housing, education, and employment -- but also in health.
      The pandemic has underscored just how urgent the need for more Black doctors is, and we can't afford to wait for the economy to recover to increase support for the universities that most effectively enroll and graduate them. More Black doctors will mean more Black lives saved and less debilitating health conditions that limit economic opportunity in Black communities.
      That won't cure the disease of disparities within our healthcare and economic systems, but it is an essential part of the treatment.