Picturing the Future: The faces of medicine are getting a makeover

By Caroline Wellbery, MD, PhD, Professor of Family Medicine

As a newly arrived School of Medicine student, Suliman EL-Amin (M’15) felt “pride, humility, and a hint of anxiety” during the White Coat Ceremony. The moving celebration, which marks the students’ symbolic entry into the medical profession, inspired him to create The Cloaking (2012). The painting tells the story of a sea change in the faces of doctors.

Medical student demographics are shifting. As recently as 2015, white matriculants comprised just half of the student body. In 2017, the American Association of Medical Colleges reported that for the first time, more women than men enrolled in medical school.

But walk the halls of many medical schools and you will see portraits of founders and leaders, scientists and clinicians. What you won’t much see are portraits of women or persons of color.

For many, the old images provoke bemusement and consternation. “As a woman and a person of color, I felt incredibly out of place,” says Hamsini Rao (M’21), reflecting on her first year as a medical student. “None of the people displayed on the walls looked like me.”

Georgetown University School of Medicine is one institution addressing this issue. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has transformed a main hallway with rotating photographic exhibits celebrating students’ diverse identities. With support from the Georgetown Women In Medicine’s ‘Women on the Walls’ campaign (gwim.georgetown.edu), Rao has joined a student-led initiative to identify female role models for new portraits.

There’s an implicit understanding that this new look in hall decor does more than just mirror a changing demographic. Representative portraits invite historically underrepresented students to aspire to visibility and leadership. In this spirit, EL-Amin chose to depict a Black dean and a female physician faculty member of unspecified ethnicity. The Cloaking pays homage in two layers, celebrating both the student’s rite of passage, and the accomplishments of minorities, shown in positions of authority. The message is hopeful, and indicative of a future not yet wholly realized.

Racial discrimination remains painfully evident in patient outcomes. Inferior care, implicit and explicit bias, and societal limitations that contribute to racially skewed morbidity continue to plague our health care system. Enrollment rates of Latino and Black medical students have plateaued. Can a changing of the portrait guard make any difference? A recent commentary in Academic Medicine enjoined its readers to ‘break the silence’ on racism. Silent as portraits are, they speak to us. Though there are no studies (yet) to prove it, the eloquence of so-called ‘walls of diversity’ inspires the challenging, real-life conversations demanded of us.

“The act of making room for more images is not an erasure of the individuals that have contributed to the growth of the institution,” notes EL-Amin. “To the contrary, it widens the net, aligning institutional diversity goals with tangible outcomes.”

In the context of a changing student body profile, women, minorities, and their portraits are redefining the face of medicine.