As TV doctor dramas go, Doc McStuffins is no ER. The protagonist is a cartoon preschooler who provides primary health care for stuffed animals from a backyard play house. In a typical episode, she diagnoses her little brother’s teddy bear with acute “dusty musties” and prescribes a good laundering. The brave bear rides the waves and emerges from the washing machine clean enough to snuggle the boy without aggravating his allergies.
“If he ever makes you sneeze again,” Doc McStuffins advises her grateful sibling, “he just needs a wash and he’ll be all better.”
If you think this is generic kidstuff, think again. In the 11 months since Disney Junior launched Doc McStuffins, the show has become cable TV’s top-rated preschool series and, more important, the spark of social movement. Why are viewers, activists and health professionals heralding this sweet little show as the best thing since penicillin, or at least since the Huxtables?
Because McStuffins―black, female, roughly five years old―fills a void in popular culture and brightens a lonely corner of American health care. African-Americans make up 13% of the population, yet barely 4% of the nation’s doctors are black, and only 1.9% are black women. Our health care suffers for that lack of diversity, and so do thousands of black youth hungry for career opportunities.
“The country needs a health care system that reflects its own diversity,” says Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an emergency physician based in Dallas. “You’d be surprised how many people still think ‘doctor’ means ‘old white guy.’ If we can build on what Doc McStuffins is doing, the next generation of patients will have a different view of the medical profession, and so will children of color.”
Taylor discovered Doc McStuffins last spring, while looking for shows to record for her four-year-old daughter. “My oldest is 10,” she says, “so I’ve watched kids’ TV for a long time and seen a lot of fluff. This was different.”
When she started raving about the show on her Facebook page, her posts struck a chord with other black women in medicine. Within a few weeks, Taylor had persuaded scores of them to add their portraits to a “We Are Doc McStuffins” collage, which she sent off to Disney as a gesture of thanks and support. And as the collage itself went viral, she saw the seeds of a movement. That’s how she came to found the Artemis Medical Society, a new organization devoted to drawing black women into medicine and supporting those who dare to crash the gates.
The society—named for the goddess of hunting, healing and childbirth—now boasts 2,500 members, and Disney Junior is honoring it with special program segments. Throughout February, McStuffins viewers will see brief “interstitials” highlighting the real-life stories of Taylor and two of the society’s co-founders, New York City pediatrician Aletha Maybank and Los Angeles family physician Naeemah Ghafur. (Click names to see the video spots.)
No one knows if any of this will change kids’ expectations, but there are good reasons to try. “Where are the real opportunities for kids from the hood?” Taylor asks. “They dream of making it in sports and entertainment, but there’s only one position for Beyoncé and there’s a huge unmet need for primary health care.”
The need will likely explode in coming years, as the Affordable Care Act draws millions of previously uninsured people into the health care system, and the nation needs a broader medical workforce to keep pace. Minority health professionals are more likely than others to practice in underserved communities, and they bring cultural competence as well as technical skills.
Taylor, who trained in Los Angeles, remembers how flummoxed she was when Latino patients would tell her their bones hurt. “I’d say, ‘How do you know? How can you tell it’s not your muscles?’ But I was missing the point. Anyone from the community would have known that was just a way of saying, ‘I’m really, really tired.’ If you know the community, you’re in a better position to provide good care.”
You’re also in a better position to gain people’s confidence. The scars of Tuskegee still run deep in black America, and so does mistrust of the medical establishment. In surveys, nearly a third of African-Americans agree that “AIDS was produced in a government laboratory” and up to 27% believe that the federal government created it “to kill and wipe out black people.” Vaccines and birth control foster similar suspicions, and the suspicions don’t die easily.
“When I talk to black patients, some start out thinking I’m part of the conspiracy,” Taylor says, “but I can usually break through.” Maybank, the New York City pediatrician, describes a similar dynamic. When patients resist mainstream health advice, she reminds them that a black man, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, performed the world’s first heart surgery. And as an African-American doctor, she has the standing to tell a skeptical parent that without vaccines, “our kids would still be dying of polio and smallpox.”
Maybank has come a long way from her cloistered childhood in Harrisburg, Penn. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate, got a medical degree at Temple University, and went on to study public health at Columbia. She now serves as an assistant commissioner for the New York City health department, running a district office in Brooklyn—and she works overtime as a role model for kids who want to emulate her. Last Saturday found her deep in the heart of the Bronx, wearing a bright red dress and a sleek leather jacket and wowing an auditorium full of teens and young adults from the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I don’t always see people of color in my profession,” she says, “so it’s great to see all of you in this room. We need to build each other up.” Over the next several hours, the students quiz Maybank and a lineup of mostly-minority health professionals about the fears and barriers they’ve overcome, the rewards of caring for people, and the qualities they’ll need to succeed.
The questions share a common subtext—Could I really do that?—and the event is designed to answer it. The sponsoring organization, a seven-year-old nonprofit called Mentoring in Medicine, works with disadvantaged students from grade school through grad school, burnishing their science and communication skills, fostering leadership through community service, and weaving them into a network of peers and health professionals. Founded by Dr. Lynne Holden of the nearby Montefiore Medical Center, MIM has now moved beyond the Bronx to enlist young people in Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans and Atlanta. The participants become “community ambassadors,” launching their own neighborhood health initiatives and getting enough guidance and encouragement to succeed.
Rita Obi, a typical participant, is a 25-year-old Nigerian American. She grew up in the South Bronx, where her mother raised her and four cousins by herself. “My hardships as a child definitely helped mold me into the strong woman I am now,” she says. Obi finished a pre-med degree in 2009 and is now working as a research associate while applying to Master’s programs in public health. In her spare time, she serves as vice president of a small Nigerian NGO that works to reduce poverty through education. “Ultimately, I want to pursue medical school so that I can actively treat my patients,” she says. “The community ambassador program has helped me build confidence and skills I need.”
If Holden and Taylor and Maybank and Ghafur achieve their goals, the McStuffins generation will include many more women like Obi, and the face of American medicine will become less monochromatic.
Chris Nee, the Emmy Award-winning producer who created Doc McStuffins, likes that idea too. It was actually a white male—her own young son—who sparked her idea for the show. “He has asthma and has always had to spend more time than other kids visiting the doctor,” she says. “I wanted to demystify the experience for him.”
Making McStuffins a girl was a no-brainer, given the glut of science-savvy boy characters. The decision to make her black was no harder. “Doc is a strong, assertive character who’s going places in life,” Nee says. “We knew we had a chance to expand the diversity of role models out there. But could I imagine the reception she would get? No, you can’t dream of those things. What has happened is just incredible to all of us who work on the show.” It’s beyond incredible that the void was still waiting to be filled when McStuffins reached the screen. If the past year is any indication, she’s in for a long and fruitful career.
Tune in to hear more from Dr. Aletha Maybank as she joins Melissa Harris-Perry Saturday, Feb. 8, at 10 a.m. EST