Celebrating Black History Month with Dr. Karen McFarlane

Feel Good, Our Physicians

As part of Black History Month, we spoke with general and bariatric surgeon, Karen McFarlane, MD, to learn more about her experience as a Black physician and to gain insight on inequalities and disparities that still exist in medicine.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Jamaica and raised in New York City in Brooklyn, a multicultural melting pot, if you will.

What inspired you to become a physician?

My mother is a nurse, and as a child, I would get ear infections and was often sick. I was a curious child and wanted to know why people get sick. My number one goal as a physician and surgeon is to teach people to be healthy.

What challenges did you encounter as a Black woman during your training?

I felt that I was expected to do more. For example, an average student might carry 16 credit hours, I would carry 21 or 23 credits, do volunteer work and I was working on top of that. I had to be superhuman! But it helped me today! Because we are doing superhuman things, with this schedule that we keep.

How do you use your position as a physician to help change the feelings of mistrust, inequity and disparity that many minority groups have toward the healthcare system?

Regardless of who it is, our number one concern as a physician is to bridge trust with our patients. No matter male, female, race or culture, I need to let the person know I am here to listen and look for common ground. If the patient shares with me that they don’t have access to food, access to care or if they can’t understand the written instructions provided, then I will not judge them. I will find a way to help. If we can communicate that we are here for you, that is the most gratifying bridge to create.

How can we become better advocates for each other and the communities we serve?

Empathy is extremely important. My faith has taught me how to look out for and to help one another; it’s about the other person.

What advice do you give others who would like to pursue a career in the medical field?

It is one of the biggest sacrifices you can make. You truly must have a desire to help others and to give of yourself. There is nothing better than hearing from a patient that they finally feel better. It makes a big difference and makes me want to continue onward.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Understanding that for me to be in my position today, it took many sacrifices of those who came before me to be here. It is my responsibility to educate, to extend a hand and to offer another perspective. Sometimes we don’t know we have internal prejudices and sometimes other people may surprise you.