We need more Black doctors

A just-released report from Verywell, a website providing health and wellness information, found that half of Black Americans interviewed for the survey agree that “the health care system is racist,” while one in three survey respondents say they have experienced racism while dealing with health care providers.

As a result of these experiences, the report concluded, “Black Americans are making decisions that interrupt their care, like seeking a new provider or putting off a follow up appointment.”

Such disparities in health care access exact a terrible price.

“People of color and other underserved groups experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, limiting the overall health of the nation,” according to a separate study published last May by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It cited a report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation which said these disparities amounted to $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in lost productivity per year.

Black hospital patients are also more likely to be in hospitals with worse safety conditions. Systemic racism and time pressures in health care lead to racially biased physicians who lack the cultural competence needed to treat Black patients. While Black doctors help Black patients experience a higher quality of care, the pairing is difficult to make because of a shortage of Black doctors.

The shallow pool of Black doctors can be seen throughout the physician pipeline. Black Americans comprise roughly 13% of the U.S. population and have a medical school acceptance rate of 34% compared to the average of 41%, around where all other racial and ethnic groups fall.

Research from The New England Journal of Medicine, which looked at data collected between 1978 and 2019, shows that Black and Latinx physicians in particular, remain underrepresented in the field: “In 1978, Black men accounted for 3.1% of the national medical student body. By 2019, the cognate figure was 2.9%.”

In total, Black people made up only about 6% of medical school graduates in the 2018-19 academic year.

Medical schools have tried to address the myriad of issues faced by Black students through holistic admission review processes, outreach activities and increased unconscious bias training. Still, more attention should be given to implicit bias in admissions and other factors that negatively affect the success of Black students at all academic levels in medical education.

Reducing the disparities faced by Black patients and Black medical practitioners is an ethical and economic issue. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates a national shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034 — an obvious sign that the current support system for medical school students is failing. Even if everyone had the same access to health care, the demand for practicing Black physicians would continue to outpace the supply.

According to the AAMC study, the U.S. would require approximately 118,000 Black physicians to achieve health care equity for Black patients by 2032. Since medical schools are only graduating fewer than 1,500 Black students a year, it would take nearly 40 years to accomplish this goal.

Everyday citizens should lobby lawmakers for the passage of the Build Back Better Act which supports additional funding and protections for federal workforce development programs including Title VII and Title VIII of the Public Health Service Act.

Under the Public Health Service Act, these programs focus on culturally competent support and training that will increase minority representation in professional health care. This is needed to reduce health disparities for Black patients and lower health care costs for all Americans.

Dr. Princess Currence is an assistant professor specializing in anti-racism and anti-bias education and  training, the director of curriculum and education at Rush Medical College and a Public Voices Fellow of the Oped Project and Rush University.


Open chat
thank you for contacting us, for more information,
please chat