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COVID-19 has shone a light on the need for more doctors of color: Meharry Medical College CEO

The CDC has urged states to be prepared for a COVID-19 vaccine by November 1. Meharry Medical College President and CEO Dr. James Hildreth joins the On the Move panel to discuss.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: But now we have to get to the game changer, at least what appears to be a game changer, the news that the CDC is telling states to prepare for a vaccine to fight COVID-19 as soon as November 1. We invite into the stream, a friend of the program, Dr. James Hildreth. He is from the Meharry Medical College. He is the CEO and President, and we appreciate your being here. This is really quite startling. We keep getting told that there could be a vaccine by the end of the year. Should we be surprised that the government's saying get ready for one November 1? Dr. Hildreth, I think you need to unmute.

DR JAMES HILDRETH: Sorry, Adam. I apologize.

ADAM SHAPIRO: No problem.

DR JAMES HILDRETH: I think it's prudent to make preparations for distributing the vaccine, because we're going to be pushing it out on a massive scale. So I think it's wise to get ready to do that, but the prospect of having a vaccine ready to be injected into arms in November seems to me a bit ambitious, and we need to wait for the science to prove that such a vaccine is effective. And keep in mind, that the phase three trials are just getting underway, and it's going to take some time to know whether or not the vaccine is working. So to me, it seems a bit premature to say that there's going to be a vaccine as early as November. That just seems scientifically unfeasible, in my opinion.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Hildreth, Anjalee here. I'm curious about expanding on that. We've heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci about the idea that an independent board, that the review board, could approve the vaccine or at least focus on its benefits outweighing its risks and then therefore end the trials, or at least push the vaccine forward. Meanwhile, we also have Secretary Azar insisting that this is not related to the election, but we've also seen the controversy over convalescent plasma also with some experts saying the same thing, that it was a premature authorization. So your thoughts on that, on the idea that it could in fact, there is a process by which it could be approved early.

DR JAMES HILDRETH: So clearly, there have been many times when clinical studies have been stopped early, because the results were so positive so quickly. And it may happen that in the vaccine trials that we see a really positive signal quickly, because there is a lot of virus out there. So I'm not dismissing the possibility of getting a really clear answer that the vaccine is working quickly, but I'm focused on the fact that the phase three trials that are going to enroll tens of thousands of individuals just got underway. So we've got to enroll the participants and wait several weeks to know that the vaccine is working. So again, I think the idea of having an independent board separate and apart from those doing the study to review the data will be critical in order for people to have confidence that it really is safe and effective.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Hildreth, before we continue the CDC discussion about a vaccine, we have to point out that the news broke this morning that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced a 100 million gift to several historically Black colleges and universities. And your school, Meharry Medical, is going to receive $34 million to help train doctors. How is this going to make a difference?

DR JAMES HILDRETH: So Adam, it's going to make a difference on multiple levels. The funds will be used to reduce the debt burden of our students. The average medical student who graduates owes about $180,000 with students graduating from Meharry and other historically Black medical schools can be $100,000 more than that. So imagine if you're a student, you just graduated, you owe $300,000, you're going to choose pediatrics, which is the lowest compensated of the specialties, that might be a hard choice to make.

So many students are choosing the more highly compensated specialties, and we need primary care physicians. So one of the most immediate impacts of this gift is to give students more agency to make the choice of being primary care physicians, and I think it's going to make a profound difference. And the scale of the gift is also pretty amazing, because every one of our students was eligible, and that's 280 students who will get up to $100,000 of debt reduction, just truly a fantastic gift.

JULIA LA ROCHE: Dr. Hildreth, I'd like to explore this a bit more. You're talking about this might enable more students to pursue the path of being a primary care physician. We do know that we're going to start facing a shortage of doctors, and one thing the pandemic certainly highlighted was just disparities within the health care system. How do you see this helping bridge some of those gaps going forward?

DR JAMES HILDRETH: So, Julia, there is a great amount of data showing that when people from minority communities are taken care of by physicians who come from those same communities, the outcomes tend to be much better. That's especially true for African-American men. It's true for babies. When the babies are taken care of by Black physicians, they're the two to three times more likely to survive.

I mean, there are just stark differences in the outcomes when the provider is culturally connected to the people they're providing services to. So you probably know that in the COVID-19 pandemic, minority communities have been devastated by this virus, and we know for sure that institutions like ours, that are trusted by the communities, we're having a significant impact because of that factor. So I think that the evidence is really clear that if we have more Black doctors, the health of minority communities could be improved, and so that's another reason why this gift is so important.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Doctor, looking at social determinants of health and it's growing importance and the fact that so many people are becoming aware of it seems like it all plays into this, but I'm curious what your thoughts are about after COVID. Post pandemic, does this energy continue? Have we actually started something, or is it something that could possibly, once again, sort of flame out as a trend?

DR JAMES HILDRETH: Well, I think that myself and other leaders in health care are determined to make sure the energy doesn't die, because it seems like a great opportunity to finally have a significant impact on this problem. And it's not just having access to health care providers, of course, it's nutritious foods, it's a lot of things. You know, sometimes your zip code determines your health moreso than anything else.

So we've got to be focused on the social determinants of health, and I do believe that there is enough energy and enough people focused on it from different disciplines that this time is going to be different. Let me also point out that we spent $3.5 trillion on health care every year. If we reduce that by 10% and take that $350 billion, we could pay for every single medical student in the country to be trained for free. That's something to think about.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Always good to see you, Dr. Hildreth. Dr. James Hildreth is Meharry Medical College CEO and President. We look forward to the next discussion with you. Take care, sir.

DR JAMES HILDRETH: Thank you. Thank you very much.