Chika Oriuwa was the only student to identify as black in her first year of medical school among a class of 259 at the University of Toronto in 2016.

The university responded with the Black Student Application Process in 2017, an initiative designed to boost the chronically low number of black students applying to medical school and subsequently becoming doctors.

There are now 15 black students in the current first-year class and Oriuwa, now in her third year, credits the BSAP for the jump.

Candidates must meet the same requirements for grades, Medical College Admissions Test, and community involvement as any other applicants. BSAP applicants must self-identify as black and submit an essay explaining why they chose the BSAP stream. There are no quotas for the admission of black students.

It has provided a “culturally safe environment for black students to be able to have their file reviewed as well as their interview integrated with individuals who are from the black community. So it kind of helps to alleviate the bias in that way,” said Oriuwa.

Before the program launched, the percentage of students in each medical class who identified as being of African or Caribbean heritage was consistently between 1 to 2 per cent, or two to five students per class. But 8.9 per cent of the population of Toronto identified as black in the 2016 census.

The system – the first of its kind in Canada – makes black students feel encouraged to come to U of T and comfortable that support is there to welcome them, said Oriuwa. Black students wanting to study medicine face systemic obstacles, including the high cost of medical school and a lack of academic and social support. Oriuwa also says black students are often dissuaded from the sciences.

In an article she wrote called “In my white coat, I’m more black than ever,” published in Flare in 2018, Oriuwa shared that she was also the only black student graduating from her health sciences class at McMaster University. Her mentor, Dr. Lisa Robinson, chief diversity officer at the university’s faculty of medicine and a pediatric nephrologist at SickKids, was one of two black med students in her year.

“The 25-year gap between our medical educations was bridged by this unfortunate solidarity—a narrative we share with the majority of past and present black medical students in this country,” she wrote.

The Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario estimates 300 to 400 of the province’s 30,000 doctors (1 to 1.3 per cent) are black, though the numbers may not be entirely reliable. About 4.7 per cent of Ontario’s residents identified as black in the 2016 census.

Research has shown that diversity in the field leads to better doctors with more cultural awareness and sensitivity, and improved access to health care and higher quality care for minority patients, who tend to seek out minority physicians.

The group of 15 med students in the current cohort has great solidarity, said Oriuwa.

“Knowing that they can turn to each other in moments of difficulty is something that I wish I had when I was going through medical school the first two years.”

She has become an advocate for diversity in medicine and empowering racialized people studying in the field, saying she’s faced assumptions that she is in the hospital room to clean the floor or had to convince a patient that she was a medical student while surrounded by her peers.