The Journey of the Underrepresented: Life as a Black Health Care Professional

The Journey of the Underrepresented series of articles was written by Asha Blake, local photojournalist and a senior at Kent State University, to explore challenges and barriers faced by underrepresented minorities in the health professions.

 

For Yoleetah Ilodi, M.D., her experience in medical school was great. She attended the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine where she felt welcomed and comfortable.

In her classes, she exceled with her grades and knowledge. She had not felt discriminated against at her medical school. However, once she started doing clinical rotations and again after she graduated, she started to experience and notice the harsh realities of injustice in the health care workforce.

While in medical school, Dr. Ilodi felt more connected than at her previous institution. “I came from Ohio State where I was mostly surrounded by non-Black individuals,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t fit in.” She also mentioned that the Second Look Day, where potential students get to see what life is like at that college, was inviting and helped her decide on attending the University of Cincinnati for her graduate degree.

After her first two years in medical school, she began her rotations. That was when she started to notice discrimination in the health professions. “One time, I was on a family medicine rotation, and the preceptor said I was doing well. However, on my evaluation, it said that ‘I didn’t know anything’ and ‘didn’t study,’” she says.

Fortunately, she was able to talk to faculty members at her college to help address the situation. “They came and sat on-site for three days watching me and the preceptor. They asked why she wrote those things in her evaluation even though I was doing well,” she says. The college made her feel protected and showed that they cared enough to get those discrepancies fixed.

These injustices she faced showed that even if someone has great grades and excels in their programs, some biases still exist just because of skin color.

After graduating from medical school in 2008, Dr. Ilodi went to Summa Health for her internal medicine residency. She also completed a fellowship there in geriatric medicine. While she had a great personal experience at the facility, she noticed that her other Black coworkers were not getting the same treatment.

Not every person in a particular race has the same experiences. Although Dr. Ilodi was treated well, she took it upon herself to speak out for her coworkers.

“It was a calling,” she says. “My mentor, Dr. Russell Platt, who was the first Black physician at Summa Health System, taught me how to walk with my head held high.” This helped her build a close relationship with her coworkers and prepared her to build a safe work environment for non-white workers as well.

Dr. Ilodi continues to maintain this safe environment with colleagues -- and with her patients. She tries to ensure that these individuals have a great experience with her. “I give the patients an hour of my time, but more importantly, I treat them like family,” she says.

A physician’s main goal is to relieve a patient’s pain and to promote health while preventing disease. While these are important goals, maintaining a positive relationship with patients should be another objective for physicians. Patients want to go to health professionals who are honest and caring, and Dr. Ilodi strives to be that person.

As a physician and a Black health care professional, Dr. Ilodi is in the minority when it comes to representation in her career. For some, this realization is hard to deal with. However, Dr. Ilodi thinks about all the sad moments she hears from her Black patients, and, in a way, that motivates her to stay in her field. “I’ve heard patients say, ‘I’ve been telling these people that my back hurts and no one has been listening’ or ‘I appreciate you listening to me,’” she says. Hearing these individuals struggle with finding medical assistance and feeling unheard by some of their physicians drives her to become a better caregiver.

While she strives to be a great geriatrician, Dr. Ilodi also advocates for better representation of doctors who may look like their patients. To tackle this issue, she joined the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Medicine admissions committee in 2016 to create the change of getting more Black doctors into the field.

Representation in medical schools – including NEOMED – has to be one of the first steps to changing overall demographics in the medical field. Dr. Ilodi recognized that and saw an opportunity to help.

Increasing diversity in the student body is important. However, making sure that these students feel comfortable at the University is necessary too. To ensure this, Dr. Ilodi suggested a few ideas that may help underrepresented minority (URM) students feel more seen.

One suggestion is to have a cultural center that is specifically for Black and Latinx individuals. This place would be a safe space for these students, faculty and staff. It would also be easier for people to find others with common backgrounds.

Another suggestion is for faculty members to attend more student events. This would show the students that they have people who support them in their endeavors. “The people of color should not be the only ones showing up, everyone should. Because that’s what justice looks like,” she says.

In regard to NEOMED, Dr. Ilodi sees it heading in a positive direction in terms of its diversity. She has been given opportunities to develop more diversity programs — like panel discussions — and to have open conversations on a variety of topics with experts in the field. While big steps may take some time, slow progression still shows some impact. It also shows that the University is trying to better itself for the students and faculty members.

In the workplace, diversity is a positive factor that should be welcomed. Studies show that more diversity in the health field promotes better connections with patients and helps improve employee engagement and retention.

Dr. Ilodi’s story is just one of many about minority workers in the health care workforce. The discrimination she experienced and witnessed early in her career prompted her to become more involved and to speak out against the inequity.

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