Membership and Fellowship |

Honoring Black Health and Wellness as a Medical Student


Rebekah Russell

By Rebekah Russell, MPH


As a medical student, it is important to me to honor Black Health and Wellness every day. I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, which has some of the worst health outcomes for Black people despite having exceptional health care systems. Growing up, I observed family members with financial capacity and health literacy avoid hospital settings, but did not get a proper explanation as to why. However, while I was in my MPH program at Case Western Reserve University, we spoke a lot about the ways in which racism manifests in health care—one of which is people avoiding health care out of fear of or to avoid unwanted racism. Instantly, I understood my childhood experiences, and I found a new passion of mine: ensuring that all people have equitable access to care and receive the same treatment regardless of their race and ethnic backgrounds. I have found myself devoted to improving health care for all people, especially Black people, who are affected disproportionately by the faults in our health care system. 

The first way that I honor Black health and wellness in practice is through education. I educate my student peers on the ways in which social constructions of race lead to the unequal provision of resources and subsequent poor outcomes for Black people. For too long, the plight of Black people has been believed to be a result of inferiority. That’s why I believe that education is essential for collective accountability and change. For example, Notes of the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson discusses in length that white people have higher lung capacity than Black people; these theories were perpetuated in literature by several individuals, including Benjamin Gould, who reported similar findings on behalf of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. I believe that proper education is essential to undo 400 years of misinformation and prolonged scientific racism, which was first declared a public health crisis in 2018 and has real outcomes on the health of racial and ethnic minorities. 

I also believe that knowledge of the social determinants of health can lead to more well-rounded care by physicians and treatment of the whole person. In my future career, I hope to continue educating my colleagues on the effects of racism in medicine by holding regularly scheduled sessions devoted to reeducating individuals on the effects of racialized health care. Furthermore, I intend to challenge racialized medicine as scholars such as W.E.B Dubois and Kelly Miller did, by writing editorials like this one, and by conducting research that is ethical and culturally competent and will find solutions to health inequity. For example, I conduct research on the causes of premature birth, which occurs at a higher rate amongst non-Hispanic Black women and is believed to be one of many consequences of racism. In addition, I have other projects that I hope to begin this year looking at management of previously identified social factors correlated to premature birth. I hope that my research can be used to better understand how specific manifestations of social inequity correlate with premature birth and to begin finding solutions to those factors to improve health outcomes.

In addition to education, I honor Black health and wellness in my extracurriculars. Part of my efforts include connecting people with resources that educate them on Black peoples’ health needs and providing opportunities to learn. In my leadership positions, I connect my classmates to organizations that serve predominantly Black clients with the hopes that these opportunities will prepare future physicians to be more competent in treating diverse patients and will reduce health disparities tied to racism. I also honor Black history by connecting underrepresented middle and high school students across the greater Cleveland area to current medical students for mentorship and support. In this way, I hope to expose young people to medicine and decrease gaps in matriculation for racial and ethnic minorities. On my Twitter and Instagram accounts, I share relevant and accurate health information to my predominately Black following as a way to honor Black health and wellness. 

As a future physician scientist, I strongly believe that research without action is futile. This is particularly important as it relates to health inequity. Over the past several decades, medical literature has been inundated with information on racial disparities in health. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done to create practical improvements in the ways that we conduct public health programming and medicine so that we can improve health outcomes for Black people. I will continue to focus my research efforts in finding ways to improve medical education, public health programs, and our social world.