As the United States once again reflects and celebrates Black History Month, a spotlight is once again placed on a lack of minority representation in healthcare.
A 2023 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) revealed that only 5.7% of the nation’s doctors self-identified as Black or African-American, a concerning number when paired with the knowledge that, according to the Pew Research Center, Black Americans make up 14.2% of the U.S. population.
The issue behind the representation of minorities in healthcare is complex, and there is no simple answer. What remains, however, is the importance of increasing the number of Black doctors and all minorities within the healthcare system.
According to Pew, the population of Black Americans increased by 30% between 2000 and 2021, with a median age of 33.30% of the population was also below the age of 20. This data shows an opportunity to prepare and train a new wave of Black physicians. Of the population, over half (56%) were located in the south, where rural, underserved communities can make locating quality care challenging.
A True Priority
Michael Dill, Director of Workforce Studies for the AAMC, explains that he believes past experiences and current access to quality education are two significant reasons behind the lack of Black physicians.
“It (systemic racism) occurs over the course of what I think of as the trajectory to becoming a physician,” Dill said. “At young ages, exposure to the sciences, science education resources, mentors and role models make it more likely that a child could become a doctor – but such exposures and resources are sometimes disproportionately not as accessible in the Black community.”
The history behind Black Americans and medical colleges provides insight into one of the initial roots of the issue: exclusion from medicine. Dr. James McCune Smith received his medical degree in 1837. American-based universities denied him entry to higher education in the field, so he pursued his education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Following obtaining his degree, he returned to New York, becoming the first Black American to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States and to be published in U.S. medical journals, according to CNN.
While an increased focus on representation has been brought to the forefront, plenty of progress remains to be seen.
The Current Situation
In a 2021 article for Haverford College, Dr. James Carter, a 1982 graduate of the university, described an experience he had relating to the subject.
Carter explained that during a routine meeting with a patient at the University of Colorado Hospital, the patient remarked upon entering the room, “I had no idea there were Black doctors on this campus.”
The patient, described as a Black woman, had been to the hospital several times previously following signs of a stroke. She had left each time without a diagnosis.
“This would not have happened if she’d had a Black doctor,” Carter said. “There are still many institutional biases that have to be dismantled. We need change.”
The issue of patient and physician biases has been a longstanding one. Further research by the AAMC shows that racial similarity between patients and doctors leads to improved patient outcomes. This relationship has shown that when the patient and the clinician share similar backgrounds or cultural identities, the effects of unconscious bias are lessened, which creates trust that results in better health outcomes.
With this knowledge of a lack of representation and the impacts racial similarities have on the quality of patient care, what can be done to help improve the situation?
One 2007 report from Donald Gabard recommends increased outreach and education beginning at an early age. Gabard believes spotlighting minority doctors to children of color, beginning as early as kindergarten, can help light the fire for a future healthcare career. As children grow older, increased outreach to school career counselors can place kids on track for medical studies in college and beyond. Additionally, Gabard sees the outreach of school boards to healthcare providers for speaking engagements in areas with high minority populations as a way to spark curiosity and further development.
Another potential route includes increasing support for programs aimed at increasing the number of minority students through medical studies. These programs, which exist nationwide, look to address this specific issue, and increased funding, awareness, and support can hopefully lead to a higher representation of minority populations in the healthcare field in the near future.
The issue of minority representation in healthcare seems daunting, but the solution may lie in a multifaceted approach involving early education that sparks a flame and interest in healthcare. This must be nurtured through adolescence, grade school, postsecondary education, and medical school.
The process is long and arduous, but taking clear and solidified steps toward addressing the issue can improve the quality of care for millions of Americans across the United States.