Dr Bryant Cameron Webb
On March 3 of this year, Bryant Cameron Webb, MD, JD, won two thirds of the vote in Virginia’s Democratic primary race. In November, he’ll compete against Republican Bob Good to represent the state’s Fifth Congressional District. If he succeeds, he will become the first Black physician ever elected to a seat in Congress.
The political and social unrest across the United States in recent months has resulted in millions of people becoming more proactive: from sports arenas to the halls of Congress, the rally cry of Black Lives Matter has echoed like never before after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement. Webb, a practicing internist and professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, is among many physicians joining the cause. If elected, he hopes to bring a unique perspective to Washington and advocate for racial equity to help combat systemic racist policies that result in health disparities.
“For me as a professor at UVA in both public health sciences and in medicine, I have a lot to bring to this moment,” he commented, “real expertise on issues that are critical to the nation. Beyond my passion for health and wellness, I have a passion for justice.”
Webb also believes that serving in Congress is a way to help his patients. “I balance the work of direct patient care and patient advocacy in different spaces,” said the Spotsylvania County native. “Working in Congress is patient advocacy to me. It’s where I can be at my highest use to the people I take care of. It is different from direct patient care. I think this [unique] background that I have is needed in Congress.”
Webb has never held an elected office before, and he’s looking to get elected in a district that voted for President Trump in the past election. He knows challenges lie ahead.
The field of medicine called for Webb at an early age. He credits his family doctor, a Black man, for inspiring him. “With six kids in our family, we saw the doctor frequently. Dr Yarboro was a young Black man just a few years out of residency. My mom had supreme confidence in him, and he made us feel at ease. So I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was 5 or 6 years old.”
Webb earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Virginia in 2005. He entered medical school at Wake Forest the following year. Following his third year of medical training, he heeded another calling: he took time off to attend law school. He enrolled in Loyola University of Chicago School of Law and earned his juris doctorate in 2012.
The move may seem an unexpected turn. But Webb feels his law degree enhances his work. “I think that it’s because I’m so steeped in the legal resources that folks need to navigate. I think I am able to provide better care…. It’s a complement and helpful to me professionally, whether it’s fighting with an insurance company or with a prescription drug company.”
Bryant Cameron Webb, MD, JD
After law school, Webb finished his medical training at Wake Forest and moved north, where he completed an internal medicine residency at New York–Presbyterian Hospital. Then came yet another twist in Webb’s unconventional career path: in 2016, he was selected by President Obama as a White House fellow. He spent the next 2 years in Washington, where he worked on Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, an initiative that addresses opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.
Adeze Enekwechi, MD, president of Impaq LLC and associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, worked with Webb at the White House. “This is the place where he will have the most impact. We’ve been talking and writing about health equity ever since our time [there]. Not everybody can speak that language. Being an African American male physician and an attorney can really help drive change by being the right person at the table.”
Webb sees patients 2 to 3 days a week on alternating weeks and knows well the concerns of people who struggle with health. Now he’s ready to have those conversations on a larger platform. “As a Black physician, it’s about bringing that healer mindset to these problems. It’s not about just going there to brow beat people or add to that divisive nature in Congress. You acknowledge that the problems exist, and then bridge,” he said, hoping that bridging party divides can be a catalyst for healing.
Carla Boutin-Foster, MD, associate dean, Office of Diversity Education and Research at State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University, has mentored Webb since 2013. With his credentials, confidence, and persistence, she believes, he will be a great representative of the medical community in DC. “You need someone who respects the Constitution. When policy needs to be developed, you need a healer, someone who understands the science of vaccines. This is something Cam has been groomed for. It’s something he has been living and practicing for years.”
The killing of George Floyd and the uprising that ensued has opened the dialogue about racial inequality in America. Healthcare is not immune to racial bias, and the effects are palatable. One survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center, in collaboration with the Primary Care Collaborative and 3rd Conversation, found that more than 40% of clinicians say Floyd’s demise has become a topic of concern among patients of all demographics.
When it comes to racism, Webb understands that he plays a critical role in moving America forward. “We have so many voices that are powerful and important in the highest level of legislation. We have to use those voices to root out the injustices in our society, like in the Breonna Taylor case. We have to do so because that is how you achieve the American dream,” he said.
The social determinants of health ― or “ZIP-code risk” ― has been proven to influence health outcomes, yet few physicians screen for them during patient visits. For Webb, discussing things like housing security and interpersonal violence are critical to providing care.
One of Webb’s biggest supporters is his wife of 11 years, Leigh Ann Webb, MD, MBA, an emergency medicine physician at UVA and assistant professor of emergency medicine in the School of Medicine. “He is an effective leader and a consensus builder,” she said of her husband, with whom she has two children. “There has always been something very unique and special about him and the way he engages the world. We need more thoughtful, intelligent people like him to help our country move forward.”
In addition to being the director of health policy and equity at the UVA School of Medicine, this fall, Webb plans to teach a course at UVA centered around the social determinants of health called Place Matters. “The focus is on understanding how education and housing and food insecurity all come together to cause illness,” he said. “Health doesn’t happen in hospitals and clinics. It happens in the community.”
General elections will be held on Tuesday, November 3.
Candace Y.A. Montague is a journalist based in Washington, DC.