Celebrating Black History Month: A Q&A with Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng

Faculty of Medicine
Research and Innovation
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Research centres and institutes
Research and innovation

By David McFadden

Research Writer, University of Ottawa

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As part of Black History Month, we discussed breaking down barriers and driving change with one of our community’s prominent healthcare leaders.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is a busy man. He’s an associate professor at the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine, department head of critical care at The Ottawa Hospital, and a researcher exploring ways of improving access to palliative care services. He’s a podcaster, author, and speaker. He’s the founder of a multidisciplinary research group and a thought leader who appears frequently in the media. Did we mention he’s the father of three boys?

In addition to all this, Dr. Kyeremanteng is determined to drive positive change and help improve healthcare delivery in Canada. One of the most important ways he does this is by being an energetic advocate for the principles of health equity, inclusion, and diversity so everyone has what they need to flourish.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we had a conversation with Dr. Kyeremanteng about the importance of knocking down systemic barriers, the critical importance of mentoring, and other topics.

Q: What does Black History Month mean to you personally?

A: It's a time for reflection in terms of some of the challenges and concerns in Black culture over the years, over the decades and centuries. At the same time, and more importantly, it’s about celebrating the successes and triumphs. That’s really what I look forward to most when it comes to Black History Month. Because there's a lot of folks that have contributed to their respective fields and got little acknowledgement, little in terms of accolades. This is the time to shed some light on their achievements.

It's also important to celebrate folks that have done vital advocacy work to get us that seat at the table so we can have a voice in our respective fields. I think that's why it's so powerful.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng

Q: Research has shown that underrepresentation in race and ethnicity among the healthcare workforce leads to health disparities and suboptimal patient health outcomes. Can you talk a bit about how best to close that gap? Where do you see the most room for growth?

A: Yes, as you alluded to, we definitely have seen gaps in care as a result of a lack of a diverse workforce. And so, the answer is right there: You ensure that your workforce and your leadership has a level of diversity that represents your population. And when you have that diversity, you benefit from that increased perspective. At the same time, you are allowing yourself to have a more holistic approach to care.

It's important to put this effort front and center. And if you look at the business side, the companies that are more diverse excel. I always think of it as a superpower. It's a way to propel your organization.

So, for me, it's just about taking it seriously and making it clear it's a priority. And, of course, to do it right – it’s not about ticking some box. It’s about making sure that that the person is qualified – and supported.  Then they can have an opportunity to shine.

Q:  Conversations around racial and health equity initiatives can be difficult discussions for some. There’s sometimes false narratives and exaggerated claims about their aim. Can you talk about why achieving a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive Canadian healthcare system will be beneficial for everyone and will only strengthen the nation’s healthcare system?

A: I think it's important to acknowledge some of the concerns. And I think some of the concerns revolve around whether the person being brought up really has the qualifications. Are they providing sub-standard care? I think those are good questions to bring up. You're not just looking to tick a box in terms of demographics. People absolutely should be qualified.

A core problem that we're trying to address is that there are systemic barriers for a lot of folks to rise up. I'll give you an example: In Ontario, there are streaming elements in high schools where your teacher can point you toward a STEM stream versus something more along the lines of trades. And people that look like me were more often pushed toward going into trades as opposed to going into a STEM area. We're trying to overcome those kinds of barriers to be able to get a level of equity.

To answer your question directly: Everything gets better when you have a more diverse working group. If you have a patient population – an example would be Indigenous or Black communities – and they connect well with their healthcare provider or their healthcare team, well, all of a sudden you have a more engaged, compliant population who are potentially getting healthier. They’re not plugging up the emergency rooms and acute care. So, in my opinion, this movement, when done properly, means we all win. We all benefit.

Q:  You’ve said that you weren’t mentored adequately during your medical school experience and had a tough time finding guidance.  Can you talk a bit about how you look upon your role providing mentorship and supporting the next generation of Black physicians in Canada?

A: Mentorship is so important. And we've made it a priority. We've started our own mentorship group, a nonprofit started in 2020 called the Black Med Collective, where we’re trying to support Black youth at a younger age, prior to them getting into medicine. And we’re providing them with not only advice in terms of how to make their application stand out as much as possible, but we also give them opportunities for research, volunteering, exposure, and ways of bolstering their CV. This was something I wish I had. Because having that support, that sentiment of you-can-do-it is everything. In this past year, we had three of our members get into medical school. Our very first mentee got into four medical schools, and he started at uOttawa this year.

So, yeah, mentoring is something that’s immensely important. The uOttawa (Faculty of Medicine) mentorship program is for students that are already in medical school, which obviously is needed and is a very important tool. But additionally, I wanted to support the kids earlier. A lot of them didn't realize they have a shot. I want to make sure they know they have a shot.

It's part of my mantra: When you see a problem, do something. Don't wait for permission. Put in some form of action and see what happens.

Q: What advice do you have for young Black students starting the process of thinking about making a career and a life in medicine?

A: Number one: Medicine is awesome. Number two: You can do this, and we're going to help provide the tools to help you get your seat at the table. Number three: The road isn't always as illustrious as you would like it to be, but you’ve got support here. There’s more and more of us at the table to provide that support.

I really encourage young folks to shoot for the stars. If they're on the fence about medicine, but their intentions are well, and they are willing to put in the work – give’r. And remember: You’ve got an army of folks that are supporting you in the background or are right there beside you.

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