LightField Studios/shutterstock
LightField Studios/shutterstock

Mike Bloomberg likes to go big, so it’s no surprise that his philanthropy’s recent gift to four historically Black medical schools is the largest such donation ever made.

Bloomberg Philanthropies recently made the gifts totaling $100 million to Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine, Howard University College of Medicine, Meharry Medical College and Morehouse School of Medicine. The immediate goal of this cash infusion is to ease students’ college debt, but the larger, long-term goal is more sweeping and ambitious: to increase the number of Black doctors in the U.S.—and the overall health and prosperity of Black Americans.

The donation to historically Black medical schools is the first large investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ new Greenwood Initiative. The initiative, announced in January, was named for the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was the site of a brutal race massacre in 1921—one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. The foundation created it to boost Black American families’ generational wealth and counter systemic underinvestment in Black communities.

A data-driven gift (as usual)

Education is among the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ main priorities: In 2018, for example, the organization announced a commitment of $375 million to improve K-12 education in the U.S., as IP previously reported. Bloomberg also donated a whopping $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins that same year, a gift that triggered controversy. Meanwhile, other big donors have made large investments in historically Black colleges in recent months. This past June, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, and his wife Patty Quillan  announced a donation of $120 million to the United Negro College Fund and Spelman and Morehouse, two historically Black colleges (HBCUs). In July, Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, gave record donations to six HBCUs. And billionaire Robert Smith has initiated an innovative alternative to high-interest student loans for Black STEM students at HBCUs.

But Bloomberg is the first—and largest—philanthropy to focus specifically on historically Black medical schools since the George Floyd killing heightened national concerns about racial injustice.

Why did Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative make historically Black medical schools its first investment out of the gate? At IP, we’ve facetiously dubbed Mike Bloomberg the “Mr. Spock of philanthropy” because of his devotion to data as the key to problem solving. It’s an approach that we’ve argued has its limits, but when it comes to Black doctors and the health of Black Americans, the numbers reveal a stark reality hiding in plain sight.

Just a few statistics: In 2018, Black people died at higher age-adjusted rates than white people from nine of the top 15 causes of death, according to the New York Times. Black newborns are three times as likely to die as white newborns. COVID has hit African American communities particularly hard—Black people are three times more likely to contract the coronavirus as white people, and twice as likely to die of COVID-19. These racial health disparities are caused in part by lack of access to healthcare. The Economic Policy Institute found that one in five Black adults couldn’t see a healthcare provider when they needed to because of costs. Black people are twice as likely to be uninsured as white Americans.

Statistics also demonstrate that even though only 5% of American doctors are black, they can make a tremendous difference. Research shows, for example, that Black men are far more likely to get preventive care when under the care of a Black doctor. The mortality rate of Black newborns fell by an astonishing 39 to 58 percent when they were cared for by Black doctors, according to a recent study. And as UCLA physician Kunmi Sobowale pointed out in Scientific American, “Black physicians are more likely to work in underserved communities and to work on research topics relevant to the health of Black communities.”

Health and wealth

The need for more Black doctors tied into an issue Mike Bloomberg raised on the campaign trail during the Democratic primary: the tremendous deficit in Black generational wealth. After he dropped out of the race, he was determined to continue to address the issue. Again, a data point was pivotal—the fact that Black families hold one-tenth the wealth of white families in the U.S. “There are a number of reasons for this,” says Greenwood Initiative lead Garnesha Ezediaro. “But the health status of Black people plays a role. Our higher mortality rate and shorter life spans make it hard for Black families to secure wealth and transfer it to our heirs.”

Ezediaro and her team at the Greenwood Initiative began thinking about how to improve the health outcomes in Black communities. “All of the data led us to Black doctors,” she says. “So we asked the question: What is getting in the way of students persisting in medical school and working in communities of need? What is getting in the way of students practicing in areas of medicine most needed in Black communities? The main obstacle, of course, is student debt.”

The high cost of student debt

For too many young Black students considering medicine, the cost is simply too high, and many identify student debt as the main obstacle to finishing a degree.

“At CDU, we know this,” says Dr. David Carlisle, president and CEO of Charles Drew University (CDU), one of the Bloomberg recipients. “Many medical students, but particularly those from communities of color, graduate with tremendous student debt. (The median medical school debt in this country is $200,000.) The prospect of paying for medical school itself can deter many Black and other students of color from reaching for the dream of attending medical school and becoming a physician. But even for those who do attend medical school, graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt makes it difficult to establish and sustain a medical practice.”

The goal of the Bloomberg investment is to ease that debt burden. “This gift will allow us to provide scholarships of up to $100,000 to nearly 50% of medical students currently enrolled and receiving financial aid over the next four years,” Carlisle said. CDU will also use the funds to provide emergency support for medical students facing hardships, personal and professional counseling and mentorship, and support for students to attend professional conferences and other activities.

Ezediaro believes Black health and wealth are inextricably connected. “Helping and supporting black doctors is a really compelling way to address the link between health and wealth, and it’s all the more important at a time when a global pandemic underscores the need for more support for Black institutions, Black families, and Black individuals,” she said. “We’re hoping other philanthropists will do more in this area, too. Black medical schools, and across the health field in general, is an area where philanthropy could be doing a lot more.”

For Bloomberg, the equation is simple: “More Black doctors will mean more Black lives saved and fewer health problems that limit economic opportunity.”