Do Fewer Black Doctors Mean Worse Medical Care for Blacks?

Fewer Black males were enrolled in their first year of medical school than were enrolled 32 years ago.

Photo by Shutterstock

By Debby Scheinholtz

Photo by Shutterstock

Fewer Black males were enrolled in their first year of medical school than were enrolled 32 years ago. If this bleak trend continues, there's cause for concern about the quality of medical care for Blacks in the United States and the profession's ability to address health disparities.

A recent report from the Association of Medical Colleges shows that 2.5 percent of medical school applicants were Black men in 2011, a drop from 2.6 percent in 2002. That compares with 9 percent and 11 percent increases in the share of Asian and Latino male applicants, respectively, during the same period.

The low number of applicants translates into lower numbers in a medical-school class, and that in turn leads to fewer Black physicians available to treat patients—just as more previously uninsured people will be eligible for medical care. Add that to already existing findings that patients from underrepresented groups tend to receive better interpersonal care from practitioners of their own race or ethnicity, and the severity of the shortage becomes alarming.

What's being done to fill the pipeline? Some targeted programs exist that seek to show students who never dreamed of a medical career what's possible. The Medical Scholars Pipeline Program of Hofstra North Shore–LIJ School of Medicine starts with rising high-school juniors and runs through their junior years of college; the program selects students from underserved populations who are interested in medicine and turns them into competitive future medical-school applicants.

"Having the potential to become a doctor is one thing, but knowing how to achieve that goal can be a challenge for students who come from educationally or economically disadvantaged environments," said School of Medicine Dean Dr. Lawrence Smith. "The Pipeline Program [see slideshow below] provides invaluable knowledge to these students by providing them with experiences and skills that otherwise they might never have.

The KeyBank Minority Medical Student Fellowships, funded by a $1 million donation from KeyBank Foundation to Cleveland Clinic's Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, has the ultimate goal of keeping Black and Latino physicians in medical school and then keeping them in Cleveland—a city that is 53 percent Black—to help address health disparities, according to KeyBank Foundation chairwoman Margot James Copeland.

Programs like this, which seek to build a critical mass of Black and Latino students, will help keep students in school and on target to reach their ultimate goal of serving patients.

Dr. Monica Vela, Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, conducted research to identify what the school was doing right in retaining Black and Latino students. She found that classroom support and student collaboration were key, and also discovered that the school's Health Care Disparities in America course made a big difference in the attitudes of all medical students, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

"An important impact of that course is how an underrepresented minority student feels about the school that offers and requires such a course," says Dr. Holly Humphrey, the school's Dean for Medical Education. The percentage of underrepresented students at the Pritzker School is roughly twice the national average of underrepresented students, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

And ultimately, getting Black and Latino students to want to pursue medical careers, and then keeping them in school, will help to address health disparities and provide more choices for individuals seeking culturally competent care. One just-released study proves what seems obvious: Patients tend to do better when their doctors pay attention to their individual needs and circumstances.

Yet more has to be done faster—it's been almost 10 years since the Sullivan Commission concluded that subpar healthcare for Blacks, Latinos and American Indians was a direct result of these groups' low numbers in the medical profession.

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