During Black History Month (and beyond) we’re celebrating today’s black American female wellness influencers. These women are making a difference when it comes to giving a face to minority health along with making wellness more accessible to diverse communities and people of color.
Dr. Michelle Henry is a Harvard and Mount Sinai-trained dermatologic surgeon at the top of her game. She specializes in skin cancer prevention, high-risk skin cancer treatments, reconstructive surgery, cosmetic surgery, and skin of color. In high demand, she’s also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Now she’s on-call for our Melanin Rich Wellness Q&A.
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Books for Better Living (BBL): Why do you think there’s been such a lack of representation for people of color in wellness — particularly in the medical field, and what do you think can change it?
Dr. Michelle Henry: Historically, African-American students are underrepresented in medicine. Roughly about 6% of medical school graduates are African-American. I think that access to proper mentorship and financial hurdles keep students of color from pursuing medicine. The proliferation of programs like the Summer Health Professions Education Program (an effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) which improves access to information and resources for college students interested in the health professions through free, 6-week long summer enrichment courses have helped increase interest and access to medical programs.
BBL: What can academic and medical institutions do to promote diverse experts and voices?
Henry: I think that medical school outreach should begin as early as high school. Many students of color believe that medical school is too difficult, too expensive and far outside of their reach. They may not have doctors in their community that can relate to them. I believe that reaching these students early will expand their understanding of their capabilities and improve access to medical education.
BBL: What has your experience been like as a black female at the top of the surgical field? What kind of lessons have you learned and what do you think those following in your footsteps can learn from you?
Henry: I’ve learned not to take no for an answer. Interested students should have an unwavering belief in themselves. They should seek out mentorship. The medical field can be quite small. Having people who know you well and can vouch for your work helps. Cultivating a team of people who will support you during the tough times is key. And last but not least, give back.
BBL: Why did you decide to become a doctor and pursue a career in dermatologic surgery?
Henry: I decided to become a doctor when I was around 8-years-old. My grand aunt died of breast cancer. She was very close to me and her passing inspired me to commit my life to caring for others. I fell in love with dermatologic surgery my first year in medical school. My first mentor was a dermatologic surgeon. I loved that as a dermatologist I could cure cancers, perform cosmetic procedures and treat complex medical dermatology patients. The versatility of the field was a significant draw for me and continues to make my work exciting every day.
BBL: When you became a doctor it seems like we were only just beginning to hear about the importance of specializing in skin of color. How far have we come in addressing specific patient needs for people of color? What’s next and what’s still lacking in the field regarding medical advancements?
Henry: We have made significant strides in the last 10-15 years, but we have a long way to go. Robust studies are looking at the causes of CCCA (central, centrifugal, cicatricial alopecia)—a major cause of permeant hair loss in women of color. Laser technology is also becoming significantly safer for dark skin. There have been major advancements in tattoo removal and resurfacing technologies for skin of color. In the next to 5-10 years, more treatments will be available.
Hyperpigmentation and hair loss [are two of the biggest challenges]. There is a hair loss epidemic in the black community. Education, prevention, and early diagnosis are key to reducing the number of women affected by disfiguring hair loss conditions.
BBL: What is next for you in 2018? Any big projects, programs or events wellness watchers can look forward to as far as you are concerned?
Henry: I am working on a big anti-bullying project to promote mental wellness for black and brown middle school and teenage women. Details to come!
We’ll definitely stay tuned for those doctor’s orders!
Photos Courtesy of Dr. Michelle Henry