As part of Black History Month, MedPage Today spoke with several African-American healthcare leaders in order to recall some of the triumphs that have been accomplished by black physicians in medicine, but also to highlight the inequalities and disparities that still exist in the field.
Jennifer Webb, MD, is a board certified radiation oncologist on staff at Detroit Medical Center Sinai Grace Hospital in Michigan. She also works as an independent contractor.
Webb is a graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine and later became the first African-American radiation oncologist to have trained and passed boards in the state of Michigan.
Below, Webb shares how she found her passion for medicine at an early age and overcame barriers along the way.
Tell me about your educational trajectory. Where did you attend undergrad and medical school?
Webb: I went to undergrad at the University of Michigan and trained in pre-med and psychology. I did medical school at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, which I loved. After that, I did an internship at Beaumont in internal medicine, and while I was there I realized that I didn’t really like internal medicine. I found out that I really loved radiology and did a rotation, but the only thing I didn’t like was that you don’t see patients. Then, I rotated through oncology.
A radiation oncologist rotated with us for one day, and when I saw what she did, I looked into it not knowing at the time that there were almost no black people in radiation oncology. I am the first African-American radiation oncologist who trained in the state of Michigan and passed my boards in the state. My chairman was black. Harold Perry, MD, was the first board-certified black radiation oncologist working in Michigan. He trained in New York. He had a really hard time because he was the only one. When I went over to get an application, he was there and saw that I was a black intern at Beaumont. He took me right away. I switched from internal medicine to radiation oncology, and I loved it. I loved the patients because they really are compliant and they are interested in their care. I can’t really explain it. I think I am just cut out to have compassion for oncology patients, and I love the radiology parts. You have a lot of technology, you look at X-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs every day. That is how I incorporated the radiology part.
What advice would you give to your premed self?
Webb: I would tell myself not to short change myself, and become part of the highest level and most excellent place you can find. Just believe you are more than qualified and that you don’t have to prove yourself.
A 2013 paper in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology found that African-Americans represented only 3.3% of radiation oncology residents. What barriers did you face during your journey? How did you overcome them?
Webb: I haven’t worked with a black doctor before. I have had black colleagues, but I’ve never worked in an office with another black doctor in my whole career. The barrier was just to prove myself and just not let the stereotypes stop me.
How do you avoid burnout?
Webb: Ask for help and delegate. Really try to have balance in your life with hobbies and exercise. Take up tennis, skiing, or something like that. Then there’s family life.
Who inspired you to pursue a career in radiation oncology?
Webb: I’m so glad you asked that. When I was 8 years old I went to Joyce Elementary School. It was a progressive school, even though it was on the east side of Detroit. They had a teacher there named Esther Caddell. She had a program, called SUAM DWYPES, focusing on the scientific method and experiments. She taught us how to do research and experiments, and I ended up putting a research project into the Michigan State University Science Fair when I was in grade school. We went up to campus and stayed at the Kellogg Center at Michigan State. I started being in science fairs and entering projects, and that really was the beginning of me wanting to be in medicine because of Mrs. Caddell.
The summer between 5th and 6th grade, my mother took us down to West Virginia to spend the summer. Mrs. Caddell was from West Virginia, from Morgantown, but she was a teacher in Detroit. She went back and stayed at her home in the summer. She had a summer science camp, where my sister Theresa and I were teachers, teaching other little kids about science.
My sister had a childhood friend whose father was a urologist. When I saw his lifestyle, his house, his family and everything, I remember asking my mother what he did. She explained that he was a doctor and that to be a doctor, you have to study hard. That really sparked my interest in being a doctor because I had never been to a doctor’s house. His name was Dr. Lerman, and when I finally became an attending, finished my residency in radiation oncology, and was on staff at Providence Hospital, I saw him in the doctor’s lounge. I was right of my residency. I was just so excited, he couldn’t even get what I was trying to tell him. I was trying to tell him that I came to his house when I was [young] and I knew his daughter. My sister was in pre-school with her. He inspired me, but he had never seen me before. By then, I was in my 30s.
If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be doing?
Webb: I can’t even imagine. I’ve wanted to be doctor since I was like 4. If I weren’t a doctor — I’ve never even thought about it. The only other thing else I would like to do is something working with children, maybe kindergarten children.
What is the biggest difference between your expectations of medical practice when you graduated from medical school and the reality?
Webb: I was never disappointed. I just love medicine. I also came through in a slightly different era. Medicine has changed now. I mean I came through in a time where doctors were really respected and hospitals treated you well. So I don’t have a lot of disappointments.