David Satcher, MD, PhD is Founding Director and Senior Advisor of The Satcher Health Leadership Institute which was established in 2006 at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. The mission of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine is to develop a diverse group of exceptional health leaders, advance and support comprehensive health system strategies, and actively promote policies and practices that will reduce and ultimately eliminate disparities in health. The Institute’s programs reflect Dr. Satcher’s experience in improving public health policy and his commitment to eliminating health disparities for underserved groups, such as minorities and the poor and shedding light on neglected issues, such as mental and sexual health.
Dr. Satcher was sworn in as the 16th Surgeon General of the United States in February 1998 and served until 2002. He also served as the 10th Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services making him only the second person in history to have held both positions simultaneously. His tenure of public service also includes serving as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He was the first person to have served as Director of the CDC and Surgeon General of the United States.
Dr. Satcher has held top leadership positions at the Charles R. Drew University for Medicine and Science, Meharry Medical College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. He has been a Macy Foundation Fellow, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, and a Senior Visiting Fellow of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Dr. Satcher held the position of Director of the National Center for Primary Care (NCPC) at the Morehouse School of Medicine from 2002 to 2004. This recognizes his long commitment to removing the stigma attached to mental illness, as evidenced by Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, the first surgeon general’s report on mental health released during his tenure as Surgeon General.
As Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Satcher led the department’s effort to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health, an initiative that was incorporated as one of the two major goals of Healthy People 2010. In 2005, he was appointed to serve on the World Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health.
Dr. Satcher has received over 50 honorary degrees and numerous distinguished honors including top awards from the National Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Ronald Davis Special Recognition Award from the American College of Preventive Medicine, and the Symbol of H.O.P.E. Award for health promotion and disease prevention. He received the Benjamin E. Mays Trailblazer Award and the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions to the Health of Humankind from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Previously, Dr. Satcher served on the Board of Directors of Johnson and Johnson and MetLife. He has also served locally on the board of United Way of Greater Atlanta and The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Currently, he sits on the board of the CDC Foundation.
Dr. Satcher graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1963 and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He holds MD and PhD degrees from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Preventive Medicine and the American College of Physicians. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, the 100 Black Men of Atlanta and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A proponent of healthy lifestyles through physical activity and good nutrition, Dr. Satcher is an avid runner, rower, and gardener.
Co-Chair of the Publications Committee – Jonathan R. Batson:
Dr. David Satcher, thank you for joining me to answer questions about your career path and journey in medicine for our premedical and medical students as a part of the Journal of the Student National Medical Association’s Your Story Matters interview series focused on the state of black males in medical education!
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine as a physician?
It’s a long story and you probably have seen it. I was very ill as a child with whooping cough and pneumonia, and the doctor who came out to our farm to see me didn’t think I was going to live. He told my parents that I wouldn’t live beyond a week. He also showed them what to do to give me the best chance to live… and they must have done a good job cause I survived. But then what I wanted to do was meet Dr. Jackson… So my parents promised me for my sixth birthday that they would take me to town to meet Dr. Jackson. I never met him. He died that year of a stroke at the age of 54. So by the time of my sixth birthday, I was already telling everyone that I was going to be a doctor like Dr. Jackson. So even though I didn’t know what that meant or what it would take, I was determined and was sure that I would in fact achieve that goal. So that was what got me on the path to medicine. I think that ambition, that experience with illness, shaped my determination.
2. What challenges did you face as an undergraduate student? Was there ever a time when you felt discouraged or someone discouraged you from being a doctor? How did you handle that?
I went to Morehouse College here in Atlanta during the period of the student sit-in movement in the early 60’s. My biggest challenge was participating in that movement and keeping up with the academic requirements which I was able to do. But, as you know during that time, we went to jail just because we were trying to buy food in a restaurant downtown. So I had a lot of those type of experiences. Some of the students that got involved did not survive that. They either dropped out of school or changed their career goals. I was fortunate that I was able to keep up academically while participating in the student sit-in movement. I think that did a couple of things for me. For one, it strengthened my resolve about making a difference in medicine. In other words, I believe that we need to make progress in helping people. When I got sick in Alabama, there was no hospital that were admitting blacks. There was no hospital in Anniston that would admit a black child and wouldn’t allow black physicians to admit. Actually, it was not until 1964, when I was already in medical school, that most of the hospitals in the south would allow black physicians to admit. Back then it had to do with Medicaid. They decided that they weren’t going to reimburse hospitals that discriminated. In 1964… and that’s when things started to change. So you can imagine, that was the kind of environment that I grew up in. So, participating in the student sit-in movement was just as important as my classwork because I realized that I can help to change things… and I would say then that things needed to change. That set the course of my life. I have throughout my career been in leadership roles when it comes to moving towards health equity to eliminate disparities in health. That started when I was a student here when realizing that, even though I had been a victim of racism, I could in fact confront it. So as a part of the student sit-in movement, I was able to confront racism.
3. How did you balance the demands of medical school with additional obligations and challenges?
While in medical school I had to work, especially the first two years. After the first two years, I got a full tuition scholarship from the NIH. I had to balance things. When I was a student I couldn’t even go home on vacation. I had to work cause at first I was running the lab after hours… and so they had to pay me to do the chemical tests and I had a phone beside my bed… and when there was a patient that came in late at night, they would call me. I would have to get up and walk through the tunnel to go to the laboratory and do the tests. But it turned out that was one of the best things that could have happened cause I learned a lot about laboratory work and as you probably know already, that is how I got both the MD and the PhD degree. I did a lot of research, but I got comfortable in the beginning because my job was dependent on my being able to run laboratory tests.
4. Did you partake in any summer academic or research programs as an undergraduate student?
I spent the summer of 1962 at Texas Southern University on a National Science Foundation program that allowed undergraduates to gain research experience. I was able to go out to Houston to Texas Southern to spend the summer with Dr. Robert Terry. I believe there were other students from Morehouse that went. But also I must say that at Morehouse, I worked with Dr. Roy Hunter, who was in comparative anatomy… and this was part of my job. I had to work all while I was at Morehouse because I had to work to pay for room and board. When I came to Morehouse, they promised me that as long as I kept a B average that I would have a tuition scholarship. But they also promised me that I would always be able to get a job to pay for room and board. So, part of my job was working in the laboratory when I got to be a junior.
5. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges report, Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine,
“In 1978, there were 1,410 black male applicants to medical school, and in 2014, there were just 1,337. The number of black male matriculants to medical school over more than 35 years has also not surpassed the 1978 numbers. “
What do you think contribute to the decrease of black males pursuing medicine and what do you think is necessary to improve those numbers in the next 10 years?
That’s a great question. I think the problem starts a long time before medical school, before applying to medical school. The black male problem that we have can be traced back to the 80’s. Maybe even earlier. That’s when crack cocaine came to the black community in this country. That’s when so many black males were incarcerated… and it’s still going on. That’s also when violence and gang activity increased in the black community. You have to remember now that over the last several years, there have been more black women in college than men. It’s something like one black male to every three to five black females. This has been going on for a while. So, when you get to medical school, you’re talking about people who have done well in college… and we have a problem at first with just enrollment in college… and so black enrollment in college has been down for several years so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that black applicants to medical school is down. Black male dropout of high school and middle school has also been a real crushing problem. That’s why we’ve adopted elementary schools. That’s why I spent half a day last week at a high school working with 9th graders. I think we got to work at the problem long before it comes to applying to medical school, because if they don’t finish high school, they won’t be able to finish college…. and if they don’t finish college, they’re not going to apply to medical school.
6. Why does diversity and inclusion matter in medical education and academic medicine?
I think it matters because we have a diverse society and that diversity brings with it a diversity of needs… and so, we need to have representation from all groups in medicine as well as other areas. So to the extent that black males are underrepresented in medicine, that means that we are not getting the full picture when it comes to the kind of society we should be preparing to be. I think it is serious when we don’t have diversity in medical education and we don’t. We haven’t had it for a while. We haven’t had enough diversity so we need more of that.
7. If you can write a note to your younger self about what you know today, what would you say?
Stay the course! There have been times I was tempted to give up… but I never gave up. But, if I wrote a note to my younger self knowing what I know now… I would just say that it’s going to be tough sometimes, but just stay the course. Hang in there and you will see it through. It is important to be able to say that because now I’ve seen it through to the age of retirement. There were times I didn’t know if I was going to make it… So I would say “Stay the course!”
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