Rapid Rounds: 5 Minutes with Dr. Onye Nnorom

Meet Dr. Onye Nnorom (she/her) MDCM, CCFP, MPH, FRCPC! She is a Family Doctor and a Public Health and Preventive Medicine specialist interested in health equity and Black Health. She found inspiration to pursue this line of work from her lived experiences as a Black woman and second-generation immigrant.

Continue reading to find out more about how Dr. Onye would like to see things change and improve for Black doctors in Canada and what inspired her to dismantle racism in medicine during her career…

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! What made you want to get into the medical field and specifically your specialty?

I am a mother of two boys ages 5 and 6 and I’m a public health specialist and family doctor with a focus on Black health. At the University of Toronto (U of T), I’m the Associate Program Director of the Residency program in Public Health & Preventive Medicine at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health; the Equity Diversity and Inclusion Lead in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Black Health Theme Lead for the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. I wear a few hats, but the bottom line is I’m interested in health equity and Black Health and I was inspired to pursue this line of work due to my own lived experience as a Black woman and second-generation immigrant, with parents from Nigeria and Trinidad. I received amazing support from my resilient community, which was contrasted with the terrible harm due to structural anti-Black racism (fewer job opportunities, greater barriers to upward mobility, mistreatment in the educational, judicial and healthcare systems) that impacted the same community.

I can’t change the world, but I can do my part to change healthcare.

I’m the Co-Founder of the Black Health Education Collaborative, which aims to transform the field of medicine by providing educational resources on Black Health and anti-Black racism to healthcare providers and health professional students. It is our hope that this will lead to better health outcomes for Black patients.

2. You’ve shared that “I’ve dedicated my career to dismantling racism in medicine” – what inspired you to take this on?

I experienced structural racism at a very young age, in the educational system, with teachers under-estimating my ability at a very young age (this is a common experience for Black children and youth) but my parents advocated for me and also empowered me with the knowledge to understand racism and also be proud of who I am and my African history. So I’ve been doing anti-racism and social justice work since elementary school. Years later, when I entered medicine, I saw so many social disparities that were impacting Black community health, and many were due to the ways Black people are treated in the workforce, in schools, on the streets, and in healthcare – systemic racism really is a social determinant of health and that was really apparent to me.

I pursued a Royal College specialty in Public Health and Preventive Medicine, which also involved training and certification in family medicine as well as an MPH in epidemiology. So I felt I was well positioned to use all the skills I had acquired to amplify voices in my community, speak truth to power and work in solidarity with other colleagues and communities facing similar forms of oppression – whether due to indigeneity, gender, religion, ability, sexuality and especially those who have intersecting identities that put them at greater risk of marginalization. I have been able to lead culturally responsive initiatives that have increased uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, improved hypertension and diabetes outcomes in BIPOC patients, and led an effective Afrocentric cancer screening program, in collaboration with the TAIBU Community Health Centre.

3. How would you like to see things change and improve for Black doctors in Canada? What advice would you give them?

There are so many things that I’d like to see improve for Black doctors – and ultimately Black patients – in Canada too (I see the two as inter-related). I feel that when Black physicians can have equal opportunities to thrive and bring their true authentic voice to the field of medicine, including leadership roles, this will improve their lives, and their patients’ lives and I think it will improve healthcare in general, for everyone. But that is not the case right now; a study conducted by the Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario (BPAO) found that 70% of Black doctors and residents that participated in the study experienced racism, and much-experienced othering, and lack of support. They are under-represented, alone and at times, silenced.

For that to change, first, we need to see more Black people entering medicine and that requires outreach, mentorship and anti-racist policies in medical admissions. We have seen that combination work successfully at U of T where we have pathway programs like the Summer Mentorship Program, the Community of Support, and the Black Student Application Program, which are done in partnership with the BPAO and many other Black-led organizations. Together we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of Black medical students at U of T and across the country. However, that’s not enough.

I would like to see better treatment of Black medical learners so that they are no longer the targets of anti-Black racism from peers, superiors or patients. This requires a commitment to anti-racist practice by medical schools and clinical training sites; at U of T, we hosted an event, Black at Temerty, to demonstrate the progress and challenges of dismantling anti-Black racism in medical education, which also included a public accountability report. And finally, I’d like Black medical trainees to have the same opportunities as their white counterparts – which means mentorship and guidance and other resources. We need to see more mentoring across differences, given the under-representation of Black faculty. The Black Physicians of Canada, the BPAO and champions across the country are working on this right now.

4. When developing educational content for teaching medical students about Black Canadian health and inequities due to systemic racism – what are the key takeaways you want future physicians to know and put into their practice?

“The Black Health Education Collaborative is a community of scholars and practitioners committed to improving Black health through education and research. Our mission is to address anti-Black racism and the interlocking systems that impact the health and wellbeing of Black communities across Canada. We understand Black health and Black life as intricately connected to the places and spaces in which we live, work, love, play, worship and resist. We draw on long histories of community and academic scholarship and resistance from Black, critical race theory, queer, feminist, and anti/decolonial traditions.​” Major takeaways which will be embedded in our modules include:

  • Understanding that all “races” are biologically the same; race is a social construct
  • Systemic racism is a social determinant of health that impacts mental and physical health
  • Anti-Black racism is pervasive in healthcare and public health
  • It is critical to understand how anti-Black racism manifests in our society, how that impacts patient health and that dignified, culturally appropriate, anti-racist approaches to healthcare are key to better health outcomes

5. How do you ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in healthcare are constantly improving?

There has to be a consistent commitment to meeting the needs of equity-seeking groups. Overall it means leadership needs to have the competencies to address EDI issues (not just one EDI ‘expert’ surrounded by novices and nay-sayers in an organization). There need to be channels for amplifying and hearing the voices of individuals and communities facing the greatest social challenges and there needs to be public accountability (data to tell us what is going on with staff and patients due to their social identities) so that leadership can be held accountable to the communities they serve.

6. Share any resources you would like to highlight!

  • Black Health Education Collaborative: bhec.ca
  • Black Physicians Association of Ontario: bpao.org

The views and opinions of physicians featured in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Rounds. Any physician or HCP featured on our website has an active voice in the Medical Community. If you have any questions or concerns please contact hannah@therounds.com