When Danielle* walked into the clinic where Laura Scott, MD, was a resident, it was the fourth time she had tried and failed to diagnose the rash on her hairline. None of the other dermatologists she’d seen could determine what was going on, but after asking a few pointed questions, Dr. Scott quickly identified the issue: tinted edge-control gel. “Everyone was blaming her wig, but she just wanted to hook up her edges with her wig. It was a mystery because no one understood the product she used,” says Dr. Scott. What led Dr. Scott to the right diagnosis? Well, for one, Dr. Scott knows what edge-control gel is. In this case, she was the first dermatologist to ask more about a product that many Black women keep stocked in their hair kits.
Stories like these are common for Dr. Scott, one of the few Black female dermatologists in a field dominated by white doctors. Recent data shows that only three percent of dermatologists are Black, which is especially low considering that African-American people make up about 13.4% of the American population. In fact, Black physicians only comprise six percent of the entire medical profession, and of all the specialties, dermatology is one of the least diverse. As a result, among the many health disparities that Black women face — like being more likely to die in childbirth and less likely to be given medicine for pain management — there are also gaps in care in dermatology, where the five-year survival rate for a Black patient diagnosed with melanoma, a common form of skin cancer, is only 65%, versus 90% for white patients.
In order to better serve Black patients — a subset of the population that will grow to 15% by 2060 — there is a need to increase the number of Black dermatologists overall, which requires taking down some of the barriers to entry for the field. “On a daily basis, I hear from my patients that they found me because they were looking for a Black dermatologist,” says Andrew Alexis, MD, MPH, director of the Skin of Color Center at Mount Sinai hospital in NYC, who notes that there’s a comfort level when you see a doctor that looks like you. “Patients are demanding a physician that has the cultural awareness and can empathize with their condition.” More importantly, regardless of race, dermatologists must educate themselves on the proper ways to treat brown skin and the cultural practices that affect the way we approach beauty, all while recognizing the deeply-rooted biases that make Black women feel overlooked.