As a Black female physician, Dr. Toni Stockton has dedicated her career to shedding light on why diversity, equity, and inclusion matter in medicine. With over 30 years of experience in dermatology, Dr. Stockton’s uplifting spirit and endless drive to succeed have led to a thriving practice – Stockton Dermatology in Phoenix, Arizona – where both she and her staff address all manner of skin conditions and cosmetic needs.
Dr. Stockton believes that a diverse workforce can lead to better medicine. Recognizing and celebrating what makes a person unique – be it someone’s skin color, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or even political views – can enhance the patient experience by brokering more honest, open dialogue.
Reflecting on Lack of Diversity and How we Improve
“Having a diverse workforce leads to better patient care. It starts with respecting differences amongst staff and patients when it comes to religious, political, and ethnic views” states Dr. Stockton. It continues with creating an environment in which staff feel comfortable in asking questions about race, gender, or age and getting answers without scrutiny. During the interview for Arizona Physician, one of her Caucasian physician assistants asked about an oil hair care product for a Black female patient without the worry of any type of scrutiny from her or their colleagues. That type of open communication with her diverse team translates to ensuring patients receive medical care and dermatological products that more appropriately match their racial skin type.
According to Paul Rothman, M.D., Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “while racial and ethnic minorities make up 26 percent of the total U.S. population, only about 6 percent of practicing physicians and 9 percent of nurses are Latinx, African-American or Native American.” With minority populations representing the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population, a more racially and culturally diverse healthcare workforce will ultimately translate into better patient care when health professionals are culturally competent, helping them better identify with the people they are serving.[i]
Dr. Stockton has experienced a lack of cultural competency from healthcare colleagues and other professionals throughout her journey as a physician. She shares multiple examples of cultural and gender insensitivity.
Dr. Stockton shared how a seemingly simple encounter during a dermatology rotation provided a teachable moment on the importance of cultural sensitivity. During a routine patient visit, the attending physician (who was Caucasian) told a Black woman that she needed to wash her hair daily to treat her dandruff. “That’s just not possible for a person of color, I had to explain to the doctor,” said Dr. Stockton. Without the valuable cultural context to fully understand how Black people take care of their hair, the doctor in this scenario missed a critical opportunity to deliver quality care.
On a flight home with her husband, she shares, “over the PA system, the flight crew asked for a physician as someone on the flight needed attention. A male Caucasian nurse volunteered first. He was not asked for credentials of any form and they took his word that he was a nurse. When I decided to volunteer, the flight attendants involved with the ailing patient looked me up and down and asked me to prove my credentials to help.” The difference in the approach applied by the flight crew highlights why other physicians of color may not be willing to volunteer and help, as they may feel unjustly scrutinized.
As a physician and leader in dermatology, Dr. Stockton attends many conferences and seminars, including some at which she speaks. In one such conference, she shares, “I go to registration and I am asked, ‘Are you in the wrong place?’” We can only wonder how many physicians of color are made to feel they do not belong with their colleagues at medical education events.
Even though most professions focus on overcoming racial discrimination, Dr. Stockton also believes gender bias remains in medicine. “I have been singled out as the woman in the room,” she said. “You know, I’m the combo package. I’m Black and female.”
Taking these experiences – and others like it – to heart, Dr. Stockton emphasizes how important it is for physicians and their staffs like hers to feel comfortable asking questions and to avoid passing judgment on others who may look or act differently. Personhood goes so much deeper than what someone may see on the surface.
Age and experience have taught Dr. Stockton to look at biases differently than when she was younger, yet it is important to not ignore them and to turn a negative experience into a teachable moment. To Dr. Stockton, “we are in a better place today when it comes to diversity in the workplace,” but that “nirvana” moment will truly come when society and those in medicine can look past the labels that define a person by their gender, race, or age and instead recognize the great work they do to help others.
The Journey Towards Medicine
Dr. Stockton grew up in a little town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. As a self-described nerd, her interests included public speaking, drama, arts and crafts, and reading. Dr. Stockton embraced her gift of the gab by joining a competitive speech and debate team, but she credits her parents, both of whom were health professionals, for drawing her into medicine. She recounted memories of following around her mother – a nurse at a teaching hospital – as she would make the rounds with her students. Perhaps the biggest impetus for Dr. Stockton to enter medicine was when she spent time with her mother as she conducted health outreach in disenfranchised neighborhoods. Watching and learning, she drew on this experience to shape how she would care for patients from diverse backgrounds when she started her own practice.
Dr. Stockton went on to attend Howard University, a historically Black university in the heart of Washington, D.C. There she earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees and completed her internal medicine residency. She went on to complete her dermatology residency at the Martin Luther King Jr. / Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.
When it comes to imparting advice to young people of color aspiring to become physicians one day, “[meet] your challenges with grace, and be good at what you do,” said Dr. Stockton. “This is a hard job. You must really want to help people.” Determination, coupled with a passion for learning, will help future physicians overcome barriers and forge new paths for others.
Medical associations representing different racial and ethnic identities hold considerable value for Dr. Stockton. They help to build community, offer camaraderie, and help expand networks for professional development. “It is refreshing to talk to people that have the same concerns and allow you to let down your guard,” said Dr. Stockton.
Serving the Community
Since 2000, Stockton Dermatology has built a thriving practice serving a highly diverse clientele. Dr. Stockton and her staff offer comprehensive care ranging from preventative checks and treating more severe skin conditions to providing cosmetic services like laser hair removal and Botox.
Dr. Stockton’s approach to treating patients goes beyond what lurks on the surface. She works closely with patients and staff alike to change stereotypes and stigmas, including the importance for all people – regardless of their skin color – to apply sunscreen and wear protective layers, especially in the nearly year-round Arizona sun. While skin cancers and moles are more prominent conditions among Caucasian patients, it is not uncommon for Black and Hispanic populations to also develop melanoma, one of the most serious types of skin cancer.
Inspiring the Future
Developing a more representative and diverse workforce will take time and resources, including the need for mentoring opportunities and scholarships to help overcome typical barriers to entry. “Having more people of color in visible positions of power in places like hospitals and private practice,” said Dr. Stockton, “will also help younger physicians feel like it’s possible [to build a career in medicine].”
[i] Rothman PB. Diversity in Medicine has Measurable Benefits. Dome, a Publication for the Johns Hopkins Medicine Family. Baltimore, MD; June 2016.