Achieving diversity in medicine is a job for all of us

September 1, 2006

What's the motivation behind the increasing pressure on deans and department chairs to increase diversity among students, trainees, and faculty members?

Medical schools and their department chairs are under a great deal of pressure to increase diversity among students, trainees, and faculty members. What motivates deans and department chairs in this effort? Concern for the future of medical care, a desire to create an environment that enhances the cultural benefit of multiple backgrounds and points of view, and the realistic understanding that preference in allocating federal grants is given to institutions that can demonstrate that they are fostering the career of minority participants.

In these discussions of diversity, "minorities" are not equally important. Rather, minority groups defined as "underrepresented in medicine" by the Association of American Medical Schools are of particular concern to medical schools: namely, African Americans, Latinos (in particular, Mexican Americans and mainland Puerto Ricans), Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

It's important to understand the numbers in this discussion. In 2004, there were 35,735 applicants to US medical schools; 2,802 were African American and 2,545 were Latino. Applicants from other relevant groups totaled 145. Approximately 45% of minority applicants were accepted-compared to 49.4% of white applicants-so that 125 US medical schools were competing for little more than 1,400 minority matriculates.

Recruiting underrepresented minority medical students, residents, and faculty members, as well as increasing underrepresented minority physicians to care for children who would be well-served by having a doctor who shares their background and experiences, depends on increasing the number of minority high school and college students who want to become a physician. In addition to the time and resources spent on competing for the small number of young people who are already convinced that the years, dedication, and money required to become a physician are worth the effort, shouldn't physicians, including pediatricians, reach out to minority children in our communities to help them understand that they are welcome in our profession, and that help and guidance are available to them along the way?

The mentors and advisors for most women who entered medicine in the 1970s and 1980s were men. Surely, white physicians can reach across racial and ethnic barriers with as much generosity and encouragement.