Diversity in medical schools and the resulting diversity in medical profession is something that will benefit all Americans. Not only is there a predicted shortage of more than 120,000 physicians by 2030, many Americans don’t, and won’t, have doctors that look or speak like them or understand their culture. As the American population is becoming more diverse it is important that diversity among the medical profession reflects the population as a whole. The Health Professionals for Diversity Coalition says that building diversity among medical professionals will “improve the health of the nation by building a health care workforce that draws on the strengths of all segments of our diverse society.”
For years white male characters have been our cultural frame of reference for doctors: think kind Dr. Welby, Korean War surgeon Hawkeye Pierce or Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy. Even newer shows such as House have lead characters that don’t reflect the country’s population.
That picture is changing. The Association of American Medical Colleges data shows diversity in medical schools is increasing. In 2018 there were increases in the numbers of women and people from diverse racial and ethnic groups applying for medical schools. The number of Black American applicants increased by 4 percent, American Indian or Alaska Native applicants increased by 10 percent and the number of women applicants increased by 5 percent. For the second year, in a row women were the majority (51.6 percent) of medical students.
Diversity in medical schools has measurable benefits, says Paul B. Rothman, MD, Dean of the Medical Faulty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Studies show that students trained at diverse schools are more comfortable treating patients from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.” Not only does it help doctors be more comfortable with diverse patients, it can make the patient treatment more effective. “When the physician is the same race as the patient, patients report higher levels of trust and satisfaction. The visits even last longer—by 2.2 minutes, on average. When patients enter our hospitals, they want to see staff members and physicians who resemble them,” says Rothman.
Diversity in medical schools may be a key to combating ethnic health disparities. Understanding how race, ethnicity, sexual identity or socio-demographic factors affect patients’ needs can improve outcomes, according to the American Medical Association. “This requires physicians who can understand if not relate to the diverse background of our patients,” states the AMA. And this happens when diversity in medical schools increases.
A test in Oakland CA involving black male patients shows an example of the benefit for patients to have a doctor of their same race. The life expectancy of black men is 4.5 years lower than that of white men; chronic disease is a reason for about 60 percent of this, but black men are less likely than white men to visit a doctor. In the Oakland test, white, Asian or black doctors treated more than 1300 back men. Patient preliminary screening services were the same. However, black doctors ordered higher rate of screenings, for the black patients, for diabetes, cholesterol, BMI and blood pressure, and cholesterol, chronic health issues that impact health. “Better communication between same-race patients and doctors appears to be a key driver of these results,” states the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Bulletin on Aging and Health.
Increasing diversity among health care professionals will follow increasing the diversity in medical schools. The American Association of Family Physicians names best practices that can contribute to increased diversity: encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in medicine and develop mentorships of minority students in medical schools. Both these practices can be valuable part of tuition administration programs that will help build diverse medical populations.
The US Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, minority groups will be just under 50 percent of the US population. Diverse medical professionals will help serve diverse citizens. The American Association of Medical Schools believes that increasing diversity in medical schools is an effective way to achieve this. Researchers from UCLA gathered data from 20,000 new MD’s from 118 medical schools about how well prepared they were to take care of racially and culturally diverse patients. It found that the doctors from the most diverse medical school felt more confident about being able to care for a multicultural population.
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