With Cheryl Burgess, MD; Jeanine B. Downie, MD; José Raul Montes, MD; Wendy W. Lee, MD; and Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD
Do you see problems with regard to race/ethnicity?
Jose Raul Montes, MD: Unquestionably, the problem exists since time immemorial, and it’s regrettable that we haven’t been able to overcome it. The problem is very complex and it cuts across geographical boundaries and cultures. I will share a personal perspective from my native Puerto Rico. You might find this surprising, but Puerto Ricans—who are considered as an ethnic minority—harbor feelings of prejudice amongst each other. Despite having a racial mix comprised of Native Taíno, European, and African blood, for purposes of the US Census an overwhelming majority classifies itself as “white.”
Jeanine Downie, MD: I absolutely see many problems. Very significant problems. I believe we are caught in two pandemics currently: the pandemic of coronavirus and the pandemic of racism/police brutality. I will speak for African-Americans and say for 401 years we have been looking for equal justice under the law. Currently, we still do not have this. As everyone knows, this country was built on capitalism and we African-Americans were the country’s first capital. Our free labor enabled this country to become what it is today. Racism is a pandemic that continues to kill black and brown people mercilessly.
Police officers seem to be unrelenting with their brutality as evidenced by the peaceful protests when protesters have been tear gassed, hit with rubber bullets, pushed over, and beaten.
Wendy Lee, MD: I only rarely am on the receiving end of comments regarding my Asian heritage that could be taken as racist; these are more likely not meant to offend but perhaps based on experience, knowledge-base, or age of the person delivering the comment.
Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD: This is a time of deep learning for everyone. There is so much to explore, unpack, learn, question, and evolve in our industry. I’m impressed that this moment of revelation for so many of us is different, but I’m not sure we are seeing the same type of movement in our field of aesthetic medicine and dermatology. As aesthetic physicians, while we do not stand on the front lines of the COVID epidemic, we, as physicians, are aware of the health disparities that disproportionately affect our Black American patients. The history of medicine, like the history of our country, is entrenched in racism and white supremacy. We often blame health care disparities on factors such as socioeconomic status, lack of access, poor medical or health literacy, or cultural mistrust in not only physicians but the overall institution of medicine. But we need to ask ourselves why there is a mistrust. We must face and learn about our history as American medical doctors, such as the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where treatments for syphilis were purposely withheld, or when cells which were unknowingly donated from Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who passed away from cervical cancer, revolutionized medicine and science. In dermatology, we remain the second least diverse medical specialty, likely due to lack of mentorship, limited exposure to dermatology, implicit bias, and financial barriers.
Was there a time that you faced a professional challenge as a result of your race/Ethnicity? How did you respond?
Cheryl M. Burgess, MD: My colleagues or counterparts in research are often involved much earlier in their careers and are recruited more often for top innovative cosmetic research.
My exposure and interest in dermatology began in research at NIH Dermatology under the tutelage of Dr. Gary Peck. At that time, the dermatology department was involved in Phase 3 Accutane clinical trials. My experience truly led me to pursue the specialty of dermatology, and I envisioned myself being involved in clinical research as well as a practicing dermatologist. Unfortunately, I did not start my clinical research career until 23 years later. In the mid-1990s, I spoke to those in industry and companies who were conducting Phase 3/4 clinical trials in cosmetic fillers and neuromodulators; however, I was passed over and ignored. I started reconstructing faces of AIDS patients who displayed HIV+ facial lipoatrophy with PLLA and published the first paper on the topic in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. I testified before the FDA regarding the safety and efficacy of PLLA; however, my expertise and knowledge of PLLA wasn’t enough to impress those who selected the principle investigators for the PLLA cosmetic trials in the US. Not until the FDA imposed full representation of ethnicities and gender in clinical research trials according to the most recent census, was I ever considered to be a Principle Investigator. I have now gained the confidence of industry, and now I have the option to be selective to the clinical trials that I perform in my office. Whenever a clinical trial needs help in filling the protocol with subjects of skin of color, I will get a call.
Dr. Montes: Admittedly, I have a built a professional career in a territory where Hispanic culture is prevalent. Hence, in Puerto Rico I’m not part of a so-called “minority,” and I haven’t encountered professional hurdles. However, I can share two observations from my interactions with stateside Americans: 1.) anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional WASP profile is automatically classified as a minority and treated differently; 2.) there is propensity to make unnecessary comments about non-native English speakers’ accents.
Dr.Lee: Not that I can think of, fortunately.
Dr. Downie: When I was a pediatric intern at NYH/Cornell, the program director, who was half African-American and half Jewish, could not stand me. For no reason, other than I was raised as an African-American with more money than she was raised with—and she felt that I was not “good enough” to be in the field of dermatology. She literally said this to me. Typically, interns have to do three weeks at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, because dealing with all of those children with cancer is quite depressing. She made me do seven weeks.
Following this, with regard to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), typically you don’t do more than four to five weeks, and she had me do 12 weeks. She claimed it was a “happenstance” of my schedule; it actually was that she was furious that I had the nerve to want to be going into dermatology.
I responded by sucking it up, getting the work done, stressing out, and gaining about 45 pounds—because I became clinically depressed! Too many premature babies and children with cancer dying was too much for my heart to handle. She targeted me because I was black and did not know to “stay in my place.”
This is one story among many for that program director…Another example of a professional challenge because of my race would be when I finished Mount Sinai as a chief resident. I interviewed widely, as did two colleagues in my year. The male, who was co-chief resident had about six offers, all for about $140,000. The female got about four offers, and hers were the equivalent of $125,000. Interestingly enough, I only got two job offers; one was at the same place that they were both offered $140,000 and $125,000, respectively. My offer was for$100,000.
I responded by being livid, as I had published a few papers and had excellent references and credentials. I went to the head of that practice for an in-person second interview and asked if it was because I was black that I was offered so little. He denied this, stuttered, and became red in the face. I went on to work in Westfield, NJ for dermatologists who gave me a more fair offer.
Was there a time you felt your profession or specialty supported positive change in regard to race?
Dr. Lee: The American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (ASOPRS) is very supportive of positive change and takes the fair and equal treatment of all very seriously. ASOPRS is committed to providing a welcome environment to all. We have a code of conduct policy that is expected of all who participate in our community and several committees that oversee appropriate behavior.
Dr. Montes: After being asked to become a Trainer and a Speaker for major cosmetic industry players, I expressed my interest as a clinical trial investigator for new products. To my surprise, I always got the same negative response. While they recognized my experience, skills, demeanor, and resources, my coming from Puerto Rico was a limiting factor. Even clarifying that Puerto Rico falls under the same FDA regulations as any of the states wasn’t enough. The “being-outside-the-US impediment felt unreasonable and biased to me. Finally, they had their “aha moment.” Upon completion of our first clinical trial (which, by the way, was recognized for its excellence), invitations from the rest of the industry partners followed.
Dr. Downie: I feel my specialty supported positive change with regard to race when the Skin of Color Center was started by Dr. Susan Taylor at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The SOC center still focuses on the special and unique needs of skin of color patients and I personally feel/felt supported and validated by the very existence of this center.
Additionally, the Skinclusion campaign by Obagi has been a mechanism for positive change within the pharmaceutical community. Obagi has always tested on all skin types for the past 30 years. As an African-American, I encourage all pharmaceutical companies to test on all skin types always. In addition, I strongly recommend that pharma hire all races and both sexes and promote some of these people up to the top tier of their companies so they can have real decision making power. Finally, I recommend forward-facing advertising with all races/ethnicities. I am honored to be a Skinclusion ambassador for 2020 and have worked closely with Obagi on this project.
Next month, panelists address strategies for inclusion.