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Representation Matters in Healthcare

Emily Potts Apr 5, 2021 9:27:44 AM

There’s no doubt, that having a diverse workforce in any industry in 2021 is essential for success, but in healthcare it can be a matter of life or death. Health outcomes for under-represented ethnic groups directly correlate with representation in the healthcare workforce. 

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Hispanics are significantly underrepresented in all of the occupations in health diagnosing and treating practitioners occupations. Among non-Hispanics, blacks are underrepresented in all occupations, except among dieticians and nutritionists (15.0 percent), and respiratory therapists (12.8 percent). Asians are underrepresented speech–language pathologists (2.2 percent), and advanced practice RNs (APRN) (4.1 percent). American Indians and Alaska Natives, are underrepresented in all occupations except PAs, and have the lowest representation among physicians and dentists (0.1 percent in each occupation).”

So what does this mean when it comes to care? Patients in minority groups don’t receive the same level of care as caucasians, as this study indicates: 

  • African-American women with breast cancer are 67 percent more likely to die from the disease than Caucasian women.
  • The mortality rate for African-American infants is almost 2.5 times greater than it is for white children.
  • Even when controlling for access-related factors, such as patients’ insurance status and income, some racial and ethnic minority groups are still more likely to receive lower-quality healthcare.


Diversity Correlates to Health Equity 

Companies with an ethnically and racially diverse workforce are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their competitors that are not, according to McKinsey & Company. In healthcare, this translates to human equity, which leads to broader thinking and quite possibly, new medical discoveries.  

Dr. Altaf Saadi, who spoke at the March for Science in Boston in 2017, said, “Views that discount the importance of diversity and inclusion run counter to numerous scientific studies showing that having a diverse range of ideas and perspectives breeds innovation and discovery. We are stronger, smarter, and more innovative when we open our doors to those from different backgrounds and beliefs.”

Paul Wimmers, an assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says, “”We argue that student diversity in medical education is a key component in creating a physician workforce that can best meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and could be a tool in helping to end disparities in health and healthcare.” 

It also makes a huge difference in how patients feel toward their providers, if they are being treated by someone who looks like them, as this article from MHealth Lab explains: “Black patients may feel more wary with a white doctor than a black doctor, and white doctors may feel less comfortable caring for minoritized patients. Mounting evidence suggests when physicians and patients share the same race or ethnicity, this improves time spent together, medication adherence, shared decision-making, wait times for treatment, cholesterol screening, patient understanding of cancer risk, and patient perceptions of treatment decisions. Not surprisingly, implicit bias from the physician is decreased.”

Role Models & Mentorship

But with so few black physicians, it’s near impossible for these matches to occur. Even with workforce diversity initiatives in place, facilitation and recruitment needs to happen in school, at the grade school and high school level to encourage young African Americans to pursue medicine as a vocation. James Gillespie, Senior Advisor at The Leapfrog Group, says “Highlighting role models, providing mentorship programs, and more scholarships” will help in this endeavor, but much more needs to be done. 

“Hospitals can use many of the same basic initiatives (e.g. working with HBCUs, partnering with minority professional organizations, creating mentoring and sponsorship programs, etc.) other organizations have used. It’s not rocket science,” according to Gillespie. “The basic solutions to many of these issues are out there; the challenge is creating the mandate and the will to consistently implement them.”