Inspirational Black Men and Women in Medicine: Dr Chris Pernell of American College of Preventive Medicine On 5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career In Medicine

An Interview With Jamie Hemmings

Jamie Hemmings
Authority Magazine
14 min readMar 19, 2023


Don’t be discouraged by obstacles and challenges.

There are substantial challenges to being a Black or Brown person in medicine. These challenges stem from the systems of oppression in our society that we live in and the lack of cultural awareness, diversity, and inclusivity in the field in general. It is important to not let the weight of this discourage us.

In the United States today, black doctors are vastly underrepresented. Only 5% of physicians nationwide are black. Why is it so important to have better representation? What steps can be taken to fix this discrepancy? In this interview series, we are talking to successful black men and women in medicine about their career, their accomplishments, and how others may follow their path. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chris Pernell, MD, MPH, FACPM, Regent-at-Large, American College of Preventive Medicine.

Dr. Chris Pernell is a nationally recognized preventive medicine physician, an ambassador for the American College of Preventive Medicine, a leader, and a social change agent. In her public health practice, she focuses on health justice, community-based advocacy, and population-wide health promotion and disease prevention. Previously, she worked at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey as the first Chief Strategic Integration and Health Equity Officer. She received her Master of Public Health from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and completed the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health General Preventive Medicine Residency.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up like many little children — fascinated with the health profession. Although, it was by the time I was in sixth grade I began to focus on the type of health care professional I wanted to be — a brain surgeon. In sixth grade, we had a guest speaker in my class. She was a Black woman, and while she was not a physician herself, she described various roles that were in health care to my class. She used the word neurosurgeon, and I fell in love.

I started to learn about what neurosurgery entailed. I thought it was challenging and complex. It was masterful. That lead me to embark on a journey of preparing myself to someday become a brain surgeon. I remember when my mom bought me the book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. The book included Dr. Alexa Kennedy, the first Black female neurosurgeon, and I was inspired from the moment I read that page.

Hooked on the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon, I majored in Psychology at Princeton to concentrate in neuroscience.

That was the trajectory from my childhood all the way through. I was a nerd. I loved learning and science. I loved the brain, the complexity of the organ, and its processes.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I don’t remember the specific day, but it was in the fall of 2003. I was at a neuropathology conference and had an epiphany. I could hear this internal voice saying, “You don‘t want to be a neurosurgeon.” It was shocking. It was also mesmerizing because what other type of physician would I be? That is all I had thought of and comprehended for my life.

I realized that I was becoming the woman that I am today. I loved community and issue advocacy. I loved looking at structural determinants that influence, determine, or shape health. I loved politics, and I loved policy. I wanted to do something that would allow me to incorporate the interests and skills that I was developing through life experiences.

I came from a household steeped in the issues around civil rights, human rights, and Black empowerment. So, it took me a while to land in the Public Health and Preventive Medicine profession. I left surgical training and segued into internal medicine and ultimately into Public Health and Preventive Medicine residency at Johns Hopkins after I went to Columbia to get my MPH degree. It solidified that this was how I wanted to live out my purpose and higher calling.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Unbought and Unbossed.”- Shirley Chisholm

This mantra is about integrity. About knowing who you are and understanding your unique purpose and highest calling. It is about living that out to the fullest extent without being compromised by the pressures of society to divert your attention and your love from what you know that you can uniquely add to humanity.

As a Black woman in healthcare, it is so important to be unbossed and unbought. There will be so many barriers. There will be adversaries and challenges arrayed to dissuade you, discourage you, and cause you to question your worth, value, intelligence, brilliance, and even the very person you are. Unfortunately, because of racism, sexism, and genderism, we have to remain fixed. Our faces must be set like flint in the face of all those obstacles to endure while advocating, agitating, dismantling, and disrupting systems that protect the status quo.

Unfortunately, the status quo is such that we have a caste system in this nation. We have certain disenfranchised, marginalized, and historically excluded groups, such as Black and African American communities.

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.” — George Bernard Shaw

This quote talks about living out a service that is not just applicable to you but is applicable to the whole — to the community. This is inspiring to me as I live out my career in Preventive Medicine, a specialty rooted in building health systems and ecosystems equitable for all populations.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most meaningful thing that has happened to me is being a Black woman physician, leader, and executive during the COVID-19 pandemic. A pandemic where I experienced and witnessed so much loss and fear. I lost my father on April 13, 2020. My sister got infected almost at the same time and developed long covid. Later in the pandemic, I lost two of my cousins, too. I also worked at a safety net hospital (the only public academic health center in New Jersey). There, I saw disproportionate Black and Brown lives robbed by this pandemic.

To avail my practice, expertise, heart, and love to ensure that people’s lives were saved and that families, communities, and whole populations were kept safe as humanly possible — that meant speaking truth to power. It meant demanding accountability of governmental structures, demanding accountability of healthcare more broadly, demanding accountability of clinical research to ensure that not only we were doing those things that would help to solve or achieve health equity, health justice, and racial justice, but that we were doing it in a way that was inclusive of other people’s histories, struggles, fears, and concerns. Giving people like me the opportunity for our voices to be heard and amplified provided reassurance and clarity to Black and Brown communities who were killed at disproportionate rates because of COVID-19.

The meaningfulness of this moment has not been lost on me. That’s why I enrolled in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial and joined the American College of Preventive Medicine’s Vaccine Confident Campaign as an ambassador. That’s why I was very critical of the previous administration in the White House. I have demanded accountability across all areas of public health and to lead with health equity.

I want health equity and justice to be at the core of tactics, strategies, and decisions health leaders make. I have used my platform to drive focus to the field of preventive medicine and public health, something that has been very enriching and a blessed opportunity because I love being a public health and preventive medicine physician. This highlights how important preventive medicine physicians are to society and how important we are to healthcare more broadly.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Long-suffering. That is the word I use because I am a woman of faith. Being long-suffering is never giving up. It is never quitting, even in the face of adversity and challenges. I’ve been long-suffering in the preparation to enter medical school, to perform in very competitive academic environments while relishing who I am as an individual and demanding respect for my identity and the identities in my community.

I evidenced long-suffering through the process of unlearning the dream of becoming a neurosurgeon and learning and living out the dream to be a public health and preventive medicine physician because that was not a linear experience. I was long-suffering through racism, sexism, and genderism that I faced in healthcare as a Black woman health care executive. Fighting for health equity at that level can be daunting, but it is necessary to demand the focus and priorities that will enable all people to be healthy, whole, and happy by elevating specifically the needs of those marginalized, historically excluded, and stigmatized.

2. Integrity. Just being true to who you are. Being true to what makes you unique among the sea of humanity, not trying to fit in for the sake of appeasing or assuaging other people’s biases or other people’s assumptions and expectations that they have about who or what you should be. Standing and saying this is who I am, these are the experiences that I’ve lived, and I have brought them to the table. I want to manifest my person through the type of care that I provide, the level of excellence I exhibit, and the love I demonstrate.

3. Creativity. I believe it is important for healers, physicians, and health care providers not to lose sight of the power of creativity because we need creative, diverse, and inclusive problem-solving to solve our way out of the complexities that exist in this society. Complexities that exist within the healthcare arena specifically. I’ve been able to draw from so many experiences in my life that have directly influenced my practice, whether it’s my faith or my love of the arts.

I think that is important to be able to connect with other human beings, to center around the human experience and the care that we provide and being creative allows you to do that.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. This might seem intuitive to you, but it would be helpful to articulate this expressly. Can you share three reasons with our readers why it’s really important for there to be more diversity in medicine?

We just celebrated National Women Physicians Day. I posted about it recently on LinkedIn, and in my post, I said, “Today, I celebrate Black History and Black Futures on this National Women Physicians Day! Black women physicians account for roughly 3% of the doctors in the US. This is both an alarming and shameful statistic. We can’t solve for health equity, health justice, racial justice, or the highest quality and safest care without more diverse and inclusive voices at the table in positions of healing, power, and authority. “

We cannot provide the best and most effective care unless we have the most diverse and inclusive people as a part of that process. Mellody Hobson is not in the field of healthcare, but she says that organizations need to recast or reimagine diversity as being “color brave.” Meaning, to be brave and to have yourself surrounded by people with distinct and very diverse experiences and identities because this heterogeneity invites different perspectives and insights. Such intelligence is defined by the richness of what people have lived in their narratives.

We cannot care for all of society without having all of society reflected in our care providers and physicians. We have data that shows us that Black babies have better health outcomes when there is racial concordance between the child and the provider, and that’s because of the shared cultural and human experience. It’s not to say that you always must have race concordance, but we do learn that it’s important always to have empathy. It is important to disarm our individual implicit and explicit biases and think through how best to partner or collaborate with a person who has entrusted their care to me? That is why diversity, inclusion, and equity matter.

As things stand today, what are the main barriers for black men and women to enter the medical field?

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5% of all active physicians are Black or African American. The foundation of our society is structured on the ideology and power structure of white supremacy, which creates caste systems that devalue certain human lives and dole out unfairly who has access to power, wealth, choice, and opportunity, and ultimately impacts who becomes a physician. We must examine how our society built its foundation, and the contemporary determinants that maintain unequal distribution of resources and shape asymmetries in life exposures that perpetuate inequities. Then, we must purposefully practice justice and dismantle these inequalities.

From your perspective, can you share a few things that can be done by the community, society, or the government, to help remove those barriers?

The other part of my post from earlier states, “Change begins with a present-day reckoning of how our society is structured by oppressive norms and wealth inequalities.”

We need to confront wealth inequalities and caste systems in our society to enable and encourage more equitable and inclusive opportunities for high quality education, early exposure to the medical field, diverse pipeline programs, and mentorship. We need to disrupt medical education and ensure that it emphasizes the importance of public and population health, the human experience, and social and cultural fluency. We need medical education that confronts issues and forces like systemic racism which have polluted healthcare and have led to disproportionate outcomes for certain groups, including Black and African Americans. Specifically, we must fund and build more medical schools aimed at educating Black, Latino, and Indigenous physicians. We need dedicated mentorship and sponsorship throughout training and career progressions — to dismantle racist paradigms in systems of care by tackling and confronting implicit bias and racialized medicine — and to build comprehensive and national strategies with concrete action steps that ensure a better, more just, and equitable future.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started my career in medicine,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Have an open mind about the type of provider you want to be.

I wish someone had told me this because it would have allowed me to think critically about what other possibilities were available to me besides brain surgery.

2. I wish someone had told me about public health and preventive medicine.

I don’t think anyone told me about this profession in my four years of medical education. I had no idea what a preventive medicine or public health physician was. And I think that’s because too much of American healthcare is done from an individualized perspective, and we need to think about whole populations, communities, and groups. Even in providing individualized patient care, we still need a population health plan and a public health framework.

3. Don’t give up your voice.

There are a lot of asymmetries in healthcare. I’ve learned the power of voice and the power of storytelling. I’m more outspoken than some of my peers, but I think we need to emphasize to doctors to be more vocal because we can be very much by the book and prescriptive because there are so many steps in the process for us to become doctors. Doctors need to know that it is okay to get into good trouble. Speak out against injustices and be invested in the society around us, and that includes political determinants, structural determinants, and social determinants that help influence and shape healthcare outcomes.

4. Don’t lose yourself in the process of becoming a physician.

This field can be very selfish. What I mean by that is it demands all of your time. You miss family occasions and oftentimes can’t participate in all the things you love or the activities others in your friend and family circles are engaging in. It is in the midst of those sacrifices that you cannot lose sight of who you are. Create safe spaces, carve out opportunities to still develop a well-rounded, whole person, and do things you love and enjoy. Know what is ultimately most important because that is what life is about.

5. Don’t be discouraged by obstacles and challenges.

There are substantial challenges to being a Black or Brown person in medicine. These challenges stem from the systems of oppression in our society that we live in and the lack of cultural awareness, diversity, and inclusivity in the field in general. It is important to not let the weight of this discourage us.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could inspire a movement, it would be around health and racial justice, ensuring that hospitals, anchor institutions, and all aspects of society understand the importance of becoming hubs of racial healing. Because of the damage that racism has done to the fabric of our nation, we need to build a new America. So, if I were able to spark a new movement, physicians would help rebuild the fabric of our society to be more just, equitable, fair, human-centered, inclusive, loving, and diverse. That’s the movement that I want to help launch and spring across this country. I believe my practice has been part of that movement already. But, I want physicians to know we have a role in this. We have a role as justice warriors.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michelle Obama.

I deeply admire her. She is authentic. She is brilliant. She is courageous, and she is excellent. She is so much of what I have read about and witnessed in Black history, American history, and world history about people who are change-makers, torchbearers, North Stars, or light houses that others look upon and look to for guidance, inspiration, and mentorship. The way that she has lived her life and lived out loud- being the first lady, being very intelligent, and going to the best schools that the nation has to offer- and still never losing sight of who she is as a Black woman.

I would love to sit with her and tell her what she has meant to me and so many others, laugh, and share similar stories. We both went to Princeton, and although she was not a physician, she worked in health care, so our careers and professions have mirrored one another in certain ways. I met her once before, and it was a really bright spot for me.

I would love to work with her. I would love to partner with her and collaborate with her on social justice issues in the United States and more broadly.

How can our readers best continue to follow your work online?

Here are my social media handles as well as my website:





You can also learn more about the Vaccine Confident campaign here:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.