Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan. She is also the founder of the blog MDhairmixstress, where she writes about health, wellness, and beauty.
MedPage Today interviewed Gathers about her passion for medicine and writing, and how she has parlayed both into her career.
Tell me about your trajectory. How did you decide on a career in dermatology?
Gathers: So my exposure to dermatology actually started when I was a young child, probably around the age of like 6, 7, or 8. Unfortunately, I developed keloids, which are a form of a scar overgrowth on the skin. I had developed several of them, so I actually spent a lot of time at the dermatologist, and had several dermatologic surgeries at a young age. My dermatologist at the time was a kind man. He spoke to me about the field and that was one of my first impressions of dermatology. When I was in high school, I enjoyed science. When I was in college, I enjoyed biology and chemistry and all the things that people who are on the premedical trajectory enjoy. I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn’t certain of the type of physician that I wanted to be, but I always remembered that experience in dermatology. I remember being in the office, I remember what the procedures were like, and that sort of stuck with me. During medical school at the University of Michigan, I rotated through the dermatology clinics, did a lot of shadowing, and that kind of solidified for me that dermatology was what I wanted to pursue a career in.
What was the inspiration behind your blog, and what do you like to write about?
Gathers: I’ve always enjoyed writing. As a youngster, I kept a journal. I dabbled in some fiction. I actually won a fiction prize from Ebony magazine. As a dermatologist, I really enjoy one-on-one interaction with my patients. I find it very gratifying, educating them about whatever skin or hair or health challenges that they may be having. I really wanted to reach a larger audience with this message. I wanted to reach a larger audience with a message of empowerment through knowledge of hair, knowledge of skin, and knowledge of health. Since I like to write, I thought, well what better way to reach a larger audience than to create a blog about these topics that I see and think about on a daily basis. I won’t be limited to just one-on-one interactions, but I can reach a much larger group of people.
A recent study discussed minority medical students’ barriers to pursuing a career in dermatology. What barriers along your journey to becoming a dermatologist did you overcome?
Gathers: That’s a great question. I know there are a dearth of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in dermatology right now. At Henry Ford where I work, I’m actually on a diversity committee to improve the number of African Americans in dermatology. I think one reason that you don’t see more URMs in dermatology is that there is a lack of exposure. So for instance, in my story, I became aware of dermatology because of a personal experience, going to a dermatologist many times as a young child. When you are in medical school, dermatology is not one of the core rotations that you go through. You go through internal medicine, you go through surgery, you go through pediatrics, but you don’t go through dermatology. So for a lot of students, and maybe particularly URM students, they may not be aware of this as a career path. If you are first generation [going to] medical school, first generation college, which often is the case for URM students, the chances of you having had prior exposure to dermatology is lower. So it may not even be on their radar. I think for some URM students that this is something that could be a viable career choice. I think that’s one barrier that probably does exist, you have to sort of know about the career and at least when I was in medical school you had to seek out rotations since it wasn’t part of your core curriculum. You had to seek out electives. You had to seek out research experience and so on and so forth.
Another recent study showed gender equity when it comes to presenting at major dermatology meetings but not publishing in major dermatology journals. What has your experience been like? What advice do you have for people trying to navigate the field?
Gathers: So, I have had many opportunities to speak at the annual meetings as well as direct symposiums. The American Academy of Dermatology hosts a large meeting every spring or late winter. I’ve had multiple chances to present my research and my topics of expertise, and I have also had the opportunity to publish in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and in a few other journals. So I think, as for me, what has been most instrumental is having a mentor. Our current chairman emeritus, Dr. Henry Lim, was my chairman when I trained at Henry Ford and also for much of my career at Henry Ford. He was a terrific mentor for me. It’s important for women dermatologists, and men dermatologists as well, to have a strong mentor, someone who has walked the path that you wish to walk, someone who can sort of give advice and guide you. I found Dr. Lim’s mentorship incredibly instrumental in guiding me on the steps that I should take to give talks and to get published. So I think I was very lucky. I did not encounter any barriers at all as I was going along my career. I think that people have been very welcoming in terms of being able to publish, being able to talk at the meetings. I think it is most important to have that mentorship. I think there are so many people in dermatology, both male and female that are more than willing to be a mentor for those that are coming up in the field.
What are you doing to help the next generation of African Americans who have dreams of becoming physicians?
Gathers: So one of the things that I’m also involved with is the Skin of Color Society, which has a task force that’s called the diversity in action task force, where we are looking at opportunities that may be available to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in dermatology residency programs. That’s also what we’re doing at Henry Ford through our diversity initiative. We’re sort of looking at ways that we can increase the pipeline of African Americans and other underrepresented minorities from medical school into applying for residency in dermatology. Some ways that we are doing that include: going to a university medical school, talking to underrepresented minorities about a career in dermatology, what that looks like, what that entails. Currently, I have a young student who shadows me. She is just beginning medical school, but shadows me in the clinic as well as another physician, and is getting one-on-one experience with the daily life of a dermatologist. So I think, you know, the shadowing and the mentorship as well as talking to students about this career and just making sure that they are aware of it and can see what it looks like sort of on a day-to-day basis.
How does your expertise in African American hair and skin care affect your practice?
Gathers: I see patients of many different ethnicities and backgrounds. At Henry Ford, we have what we call the Multicultural Dermatology Clinic, which is one of a few in the country that focuses on the dermatologic needs of skin of color. As part of that center, our focus is on treating dermatologic disorders of skin of color, but I also do general dermatology. So that’s my other hat. I greatly enjoy doing skin checks, finding skin cancers, and removing skin cancers. I enjoy geriatric dermatology a great deal. I think it’s a nice mix of being able to do general dermatology and seeing all that entails, but also to have a focus at the multicultural dermatology center on the dermatologic needs of skin of color.