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Women in STEM: Onyenyechukwu Nnorom

U of T physician on making medicine more inclusive for racialized students
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Nnorom is a physician and Associate Program Director at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. COURTESY OF ONYENYECHUKWU NNOROM
Nnorom is a physician and Associate Program Director at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. COURTESY OF ONYENYECHUKWU NNOROM

Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, a physician, as well as an assistant professor and Associate Program Director at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, spoke with The Varsity about her experiences dealing with inequality in health care sectors.

Nnorom recently added “podcast host” to her list of titles after launching a podcast called Race, Health & Happiness, in which she interviews people from different backgrounds about overcoming challenges and “staying well in a racialized world.” The podcast also reflects on how people can make communities and systems more accessible.

Road to medicine

“My experiences probably shaped my career substantially, because my area of expertise in medicine is around health equity and looking at what makes certain populations less healthy than others where that inequality is due to social injustice,” explained Nnorom.

From her experiences facing racism as a young child in Montréal, she became interested in social justice. “At a very young age, race… the label of being Black… and all of the assumptions that come with that affected my life,” said Nnorom. This inspired her to read about people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later in her life, from her experiences as a mentee in a “mentorship group that was focused on minority students” entering the medical field, and from her medical training, she realized that there was an intersection between social justice and medicine.

“This area that I’ve ended up focusing on, looking at how racism impacts health, very much stems from those childhood experiences, so I very much have followed my passions around addressing this issue that affected me at such a young age,” explained Nnorom.

Realizing challenges retrospectively

Some of the challenges Nnorom faced were cultural. As a mentee, she was taught how to conduct herself in medical school interviews. This included training around norms such as eye contact, hand gestures, and speech patterns.

“Part of the training… was to really make sure that we could show that we could fit into a Western paradigm,” she said. She considers medicine “a very Eurocentric culture,” which can narrowly define the acceptable behaviour of medical professionals. 

Nnorom also faced barriers in accessing opportunities, including some that she never understood the reason for, such as why some people received certain research opportunities or had connections with certain people. 

“I didn’t fully grasp that a high proportion of the class were the children [of] or related to physicians.” Her peers had different levels of access to resources and information, which placed them at an advantage.

“There were some things that actually I didn’t even know had been barriers,” reflected Nnorom. 

Improving inclusivity for racialized people at U of T

U of T has several mentorship opportunities for those in underrepresented groups. This includes the Faculty of Medicine’s Summer Mentorship Program for high school students “of Indigenous or African ancestry”; its Community of Support initiative for medical school applicants “who are Indigenous, Black, Filipino, economically disadvantaged, or who self-identify with having a disability”; and the Black Student Application Program (BSAP) for Black medical school applicants. The BSAP does not change admission requirements, but asks applicants to submit a supplementary essay that will be reviewed by Black physicians and members of the U of T community. 

In its first year in 2017, 14 medical students were admitted through the BSAP. For comparison, there was one Black first-year medical student in 2016-2017. “The Black Student Application Program gets a lot of emphasis,” noted Nnorom, “but you actually need a comprehensive approach, not just a student application program.”

This is necessary in order to address the large number of barriers to studying medicine that Black students face. “There’s a reason why particular groups, particularly Black people, are underrepresented in medicine. It’s the legacy of anti-Black racism.” 

“We need to work with the hospitals, we need to work with the larger university institution to make sure that it is a safe space,” she said.

“There’s lots of things that need to be done. I think there needs to be more education on racial biases, so you know where there is bias. There needs to be more discussion on having more inclusive spaces,” reflected Nnorom.