RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's a surprising statistic - last year, fewer African-American men applied to medical school than they did three decades ago. To find out why, Lauren Silverman from KERA in Dallas spoke with several black med school students about the path that got them there.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: After a long day with patients at the veterans' hospital in Dallas, Oviea Akpotaire is unpacking groceries on his kitchen counter.
OVIEA AKPOTAIRE: Milk and beef jerky and cereal, this random cucumber that I bought because Jeff bought a cucumber, too.
SILVERMAN: Jeffrey Okonye is his friend and fellow fourth-year medical student at University of Texas Southwestern. They're in a class of 237 people. Okonye points out there are only five black men.
JEFFREY OKONYE: I knew the ones above us, below us because there aren't that many in either.
SILVERMAN: Do you guys stick together as a group?
OKONYE: No, I wouldn't say we're, like, this large group of black males walking around (laughter) but we all kind of know each other. It's comforting to see another person that looks like you.
SILVERMAN: While more black men graduated from college over the past few decades, the number in medical school dropped between 1978 and 2014. In 1978, 1,410 black men applied to medical school and 542 ended up enrolling. In 2014, both those numbers were down - 1,337 applied and 515 enrolled. This shocked Akpotaire.
AKPOTAIRE: You would think that the conditions would be a lot different than they were back in 1978.
SILVERMAN: Those figures come from a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Every other minority group, including Asians and Hispanics, saw growth in applicants. Enrollment statistics for 2015 out this week show a modest gain of 8 percent for black men. It's a positive sign, but the number is still almost stagnant. Dr. Dale Okorodudu, a pulmonary specialist in Dallas, worries a lack of black male doctors could be bad for patients. Studies show people are more likely to follow doctor's directions on, say, medications or exercise if they can relate to them.
DALE OKORODUDU: You can tell the way the patient looks at you. Or they'll say things like, oh, I'm so glad to see you. Or a patient who just saw me in the hallway said, hey, brother, I'm glad to see you here. There's not enough of us out here.
SILVERMAN: Okorodudu has been trying to figure out why so few black men go into medicine. His conclusion - the lack of role models.
OKORODUDU: If you're a black male - let's say you're growing up in an inner-city neighborhood - there's so many different things that you have the option to try to go into, whether it's various entertainment industries, music, sports, comedy or whether it's getting involved with the church or whether it's business. Those things are directly there in front of you. But when you're talking about the medical workforce, none of us are directly there in front of them.
SILVERMAN: And it can take a decade to become a doctor, says med student Jeffrey Okonye.
OKONYE: A lot of friends of mine - black males - are engineers. They go to school for four years. They have a job, great pay. They even had internships that I was highly jealous of.
SILVERMAN: Okonye, Akpotaire and Okorodudu have something else in common.
OKONYE: My mom was a nurse.
AKPOTAIRE: I got interested in medicine because my aunt was actually a doctor.
OKORODUDU: Particularly my brother, Daniel (ph), who's a doctor, he's been a mentor for me the whole journey.
SILVERMAN: Yep, role models in the family. And all three are the children of immigrants. This is a national trend. And, Okorodudu says, black men who applied to med school in 1978 were probably from families who had been in the U.S. for generations.
OKORODUDU: Whereas individuals who are applying to med school now, a great number of them, like myself included, are actually Nigerian-American. So if we actually broke it down that way, I'm sure that factoid's even more alarming.
SILVERMAN: Alarming, he says, because African-Americans who've been in the U.S. for generations aren't getting in the med school pipeline. Okorodudu has started an online mentoring service called diverse medicine. Sometimes, he says, the key to getting kids interested is simply seeing a black man in a white coat. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.
MARTIN: And this story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR member stations and Kaiser Health News.
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