Dr. Preston Igwe discusses diversity in medicine and veteran care
As a healthcare professional, you never know what kind of impact you may have on a patient, as Dr. Preston Igwe, MD, learned during a VA rotation.
In a virality Tweeter as of January 2022, Dr. Igwe shared that he was the first black doctor his patient, a black veteran, had seen in his 50 years come to VA for medical care.
Dr. Igwe, a first-year psychiatry resident who alternates between VA and Ronald Reagan Medical Center as part of his job at UCLA, recently sat down with us to discuss his career, diversity in medicine and at VA, and from this tweet.
What made you want to become a doctor?
I have wanted to be a doctor since I was a child growing up in a traditional Nigerian home. I am originally from Nigeria but my family moved to southwest Houston when I was very young. I attended a diverse high school for students interested in health professions, so I got to see my classmates strive to go to college and become doctors, dentists, nurses, and pharmacists.
After graduating from high school, I had to have a few surgeries in college to remove a tumor in my jaw. It was then that I first saw the patient side of medicine. This experience has further fueled my passion to become a doctor and allows me to understand what my patients are feeling.
Did you have prior knowledge of VA before joining our team?
UCLA psychiatry residents all spend a lot of time in VA as part of our training. That’s something I liked, because it’s a very large and well-integrated national system. I’m a fan of the fact that it works as a kind of universal health coverage for veterans who qualify for VA services.
I didn’t gain VA experience as a medical student, so the VA system was very new to me and it took me a while to get used to it. Now that I have worked at VA for several months, I am much more comfortable and confident navigating the system.
Prior to the interaction you shared on Twitter, had you ever come across anything like this?
The best times of medical school and residency, for me, are the times when you really feel the difference your presence makes.
As a black medical student, there are times when black patients see you and their faces light up. A lot of times they tell you it’s rare to see a black medical student or doctor, so it’s very refreshing for them. Often they tell you to keep moving forward and that they are proud of you. These experiences are priceless!
However, no patient ever told me that I was the first black doctor they ever had. I’m sure that may have been the reality for many of my patients because only 5% of American physicians identify as black. But the patient I saw at VA was the first to verbalize it so directly.
When this veteran spoke, what struck you the most at that moment?
I was struck by the fact that it had been over 50 years and he had never seen a black doctor in VA. I know there were several in VA during that time, so the fact that he never encountered one was both shocking and disappointing. This shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to diversify both VA and medicine as a whole.
Has this interaction changed the way you view your work at VA?
Not really. I knew the statistics about black doctors when I started medical school. I still show up to work every day ready to do my best for each patient. What he did was highlight the fact that when it comes to diversity in medicine, we have not reached the level that some would have us believe.
I am able to truly make a difference in the lives of my patients. Especially my black patients, because they may never have seen a doctor like them before. And now I know how life-changing it can be for a patient. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a privilege at the same time.
When it comes to diversity in the medical profession and at VA, how would you approach things differently?
I think the field of medicine as a whole needs to focus on more than just increasing the presence of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. While critically important, medicine must also focus on creating an environment where these people can live happy and healthy lives as medical professionals.
We must deconstruct the structural barriers that prevent people of color from accessing medicine and also address the forces that push us off the field. There are hundreds of years of inequities in medicine, and the field must honestly and transparently consider this history while doing its best to eradicate those inequities.
What does VA do when it comes to attracting diverse healthcare professionals?
I think VA debt reduction programs are great for recruiting various medical professionals. On average, black and Latino medical students graduate from medical school with greater student loan burdens than our white counterparts, so having a strong program that makes it easier to repay our loans is a great recruiting tool.
What is your favorite thing about working at VA?
I really enjoy working with underserved patients, and I get most of that residency experience working at VA. I work with many racial and ethnic minorities in VA. I also work with patients who are homeless, uninsured and often have no one in their life who can help take care of them. I get immense satisfaction from caring for these patients.
What would you say to someone considering a career with VA?
I would tell them that it is an enriching experience. It’s a great way to care for diverse and underserved patients. You can focus on what’s most important: treating the patient to the best of your ability.
Work at VA
As we serve the most diverse group of veterans in history, VA is committed to hiring a culturally competent workforce and working to develop a new mission, goals and objectives regarding diversity, l inclusion, equity and access.