Why the Lack of Diverse Physicians Matters
One of the most prescient pieces of advice when dealing with the health care system in the United States? Don’t get sick. That’s because the average wait time for a doctor’s appointment across 15 large metros is 26 days, a 24% increase since 2004. And this is likely to get worse. Over the next dozen years, the United States could see a shortage of physicians ranging from 38,000 at the low end to 124,000 at the high end. A third of those are expected to be in primary care alone.
The quantity of doctors isn’t the only problem; the diversity of the doctor pool is also an issue. Only about 5% of doctors are Black and 6% are Hispanic, despite comprising 14% and 19% of the US population, respectively. Fifty-three percent of Black Americans and 39% of Hispanic Americans say it’s difficult to find a doctor who shares their racial or ethnic background.
The looming doctor shortage and lack of diversity in the health care workforce have significant implications. It’s time for policymakers to pay closer attention.
The lack of diversity among practicing physicians is more than an inconvenience—it can mean worse care and worse health outcomes for people of color.
A 2020 poll found that 70% of Black Americans said they were treated unfairly when seeking out medical care, and 55% said they didn’t trust our health care system. Bad interactions can often discourage people of color from seeking future care. For primary care, that can mean skipping yearly check-ups and vital preventive care, leaving chronic illnesses and other health complications go unchecked. Delayed or missed care often results in more visits to the doctor, worse outcomes, and higher costs. And for patients of color that seek care, they’re more likely to be misdiagnosed and undertreated than white patients, worsening the long history of distrust among communities of color and the health care system.
A more plentiful and diverse workforce would mean patients of color could find doctors of color or physicians who speak the same language. Studies have shown that minority communities see better health outcomes and have more access to participating in research when they are treated by a doctor who looks like them, has more experience with different cultures and backgrounds, or speaks their language.
There needs to be a multi-faceted approach to increasing the number of physicians from communities of color. Luckily, the Health Equity and Accountability Act, introduced by Representative Robin Kelly (IL-02) and Senator Cory Booker (NJ), includes important provisions dedicated to health workforce diversity.
The bill would award grants to medical schools that demonstrate a commitment to health workforce diversity. Eligible schools include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and institutions with programs dedicated to recruiting and retaining minority health professionals. Funding would be used to expand diversity programs to increase the number of people of color enrolled in and graduating from medical school.
The bill would also award grants to undergraduate schools with pipeline programs for minority students aiming to become physicians. These programs provide counseling and mentoring to minority students to prepare them to apply and get into medical school. Applying to medical school can be expensive and hard to navigate, especially for first-generation college students (who are disproportionately people of color). Expanding pipeline programs like these can help students of color navigate some of these barriers.
And finally, the bill would expand loan forgiveness programs for physicians who work in underserved communities. One major barrier for many students of color is the cost of medical school. Loan forgiveness programs can help alleviate that burden while encouraging physicians to work in communities in need.
The lack of diversity in our health care workforce can have consequences for people of color—worse care, worse health outcomes, and higher health care costs. Legislation can be used to encourage undergraduate and medical schools to step up their efforts to improve diversity and get more physicians of color into communities that desperately need them.