Faculty of Medicine mentorship program aims to empower Black learners

Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Dr. Ewurabena Simpson

"The BMSA (Black Medical Students Association) mentorship program provides a safe space for students to be themselves and talk about challenges that they may not be able to speak about frankly elsewhere. It’s helping our medical students feel supported and empowered."

-- Dr. Ewurabena Simpson

By David McFadden
Research Writer

Aspiring physician Saada Hussen realized she was internalizing an undue burden about racial representation when she got into a car accident on her way to uOttawa two years ago. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the Black medical student worried that if she was late to class it might reinforce spurious tropes about minorities and punctuality in others’ minds.

“I remember that was the only thing going through my thoughts — even while my car was absolutely totaled,” says Hussen, a Toronto native and first-generation medical student who is now in her third year at the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine.

Medical school is a challenging balancing act for all learners due to the sheer amount of new learning experiences, but there are additional pressures for Black students. Studies have shown Black medical students experience a heightened sense of social isolation. Many feel a responsibility to represent the Black community due to persistent underrepresentation. Some struggle to feel they belong.

With the support and leadership of the Office of Faculty Affairs, the Black Medical Student Association mentorship group has been established as the newest mentoring program across the Faculty of Medicine. While still in its nascent stages, it’s thriving and growing with support from Faculty and resident mentors.

Black learners are paired one-on-one with Black physician mentors from the Faculty of Medicine and affiliated hospitals. Goals of the program are to raise awareness about Black Canadian health disparities and to foster a community of inclusion that will promote the academic and personal success of uOttawa’s Black medical students.

It’s well established that mentorship plays a major role in the advancement and retention of medical students and trainees. And for racialized learners, it is crucial to have mentors who share their experience, according to Dr. Ewurabena Simpson, an assistant professor at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Ottawa and assistant dean for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).

“Mentorship is such a huge part of career development in medicine, and when you and your group are not represented amongst your peers and your preceptors, it can be hard to see yourself as a successful future physician,” says Dr. Simpson, also a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at CHEO. “The BMSA mentorship program provides a safe space for students to be themselves and talk about challenges that they may not be able to speak about frankly elsewhere. It’s helping our medical students feel supported and empowered.”

Participating students strongly agree, praising the importance of shared networking and fostering a circle of supporters both professional and personal. They report that mentorship is guiding them on how to advance their medical careers and navigate challenges.

Patricia Burhunduli, a MD/PhD student at the Faculty of Medicine, describes her mentorship experience as a “breath of fresh air.” She’s been paired with Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an ICU and palliative care doctor at the Ottawa Hospital and Hôpital Montfort.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have mentorship. Having a Black community can make you feel very less alone, very understood and very heard,” Burhunduli says. “It’s been a really powerful and important addition to my medical journey.”

Burhunduli and Hussen, both recent leaders of the uOttawa Black Medical Student Association (BMSA), are determined to help stimulate interest in medical careers in the Black community and provide mentoring themselves. Under the supervision of Dr. Simpson and in collaboration with student colleagues, they have led an anti-racism curriculum audit of the MD program curriculum at uOttawa to improve the representation of racialized patients and populations in the undergraduate medical curriculum.

“We’re fortunate enough to be in a cohort where others are aware of this as well,” says Hussen, who is being mentored by Dr. Peter Munene, a General Internal Medicine physician at the Ottawa Hospital.

There’s much potential for improvement in terms of diversity and the systemic barriers that hinder an equitable representation of racialized groups in medicine. For instance, in Canada, where “niceness” is frequently linked with national identity, there remains a lingering insistence in some quarters that racism just isn’t a problem here.

Yet in Canada, Black physicians have been chronically underrepresented relative to their proportion in the population. While numbers don’t provide the whole story of equity and diversity, they help to illustrate the problem. In Ontario, research has suggested that just over 2 percent of physicians are Black, while census figures have shown the Black population is nearly 5 percent of the Canadian population.

Another ongoing challenge is how to track progress toward increased diversity and equitable representation in Canada. In the United States, where there’s an ongoing reckoning with racism as persistent inequities endure, including stark ones in health and medicine, race-based data has been collected for decades. However, Dr. Simpson says this has not been a standard practice in Canada, which limits the ability to quantify the impact of racial disparities in medicine and other fields.

Dr. Simpson says the Faculty of Medicine is committed to advancing diversity and addressing the persistent lack of racialized and other underrepresented physicians in medicine. A specific area that the EDI Office wants to improve upon is the enactment of “anti-racism and anti-oppression” education and practices across the Faculty.

“There's a desire from faculty, staff and trainees to know more about issues related to anti-racism and anti-oppression. However, I think there is also discomfort about how to talk about the issues and how to tackle them,” she says. “There's a lot of work to do but I do feel that the ground is very fertile for positive change. The Faculty is very supportive of these positive changes as an institution and I am optimistic.”

uOttawa recently launched the first research centre dedicated to studying the biological, social, cultural and economic determinants of health in Canada’s Black communities.

And late last year, the University of Ottawa joined 40 Canadian institutions in signing the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education. Upon signing, President and Vice-Chancellor Jacques Frémont said uOttawa is “committed to developing and implementing concrete transformative solutions to combat systemic anti-Black racism, and to promoting Black excellence and inclusion in our pedagogy, our research, our governance and in the student experience.”

Consider supporting the University of Ottawa. 
The Black Leaders in Medicine Scholarship has been established by the Faculty of Medicine’s Undergraduate Medical Education Program, in collaboration with the Black Medical Students Association (BMSA) of the University of Ottawa, to award a scholarship to a student from a Black community who is enrolled in the first year of the MD program at the University of Ottawa.

Saada Hussen

uOttawa medical student Saada Hussen

Dr. Ewurabena Simpson

Dr. Ewurabena Simpson

Patricia Burhunduli

Patricia Burhunduli, MD/PhD student at uOttawa


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