Our health care workforce should reflect the diversity of our nation. Studies have found that patients who are treated by physicians of the same race or ethnicity are more likely to follow their recommendations, and in some cases, health outcomes may dramatically improve.
As we close Black History Month, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of racial health inequities: Black Americans experience higher rates of diseases such as hypertension and stroke, and Black men “have the lowest life expectancy of any demographic group, living on average 4.5 fewer years than white men.”
How can we address the long-standing health inequities faced by Black Americans? In part by increasing the number of Black men in medicine. A 2015 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) found that the number of Black male medical students has actually declined over the previous four decades — from 542 in 1978 to just 515 in 2014.
In response to this troubling data, the AAMC and the National Medical Association (NMA), the oldest organization of Black physicians, formed the Action Collaborative for Black Men in Medicine to develop systemic solutions to increase the representation and success of Black men interested in medicine. A recent article published in the journal Academic Medicine details not only the historic and systemic reasons for the lack of progress but also outlines the Action Collaborative’s initial focus areas and future plans that will inform an action agenda in the coming years.
Federal lawmakers can also take steps to ensure greater representation of Black men in medicine. Various programs, such as the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Title VII workforce development programs, make careers in medicine more accessible to students nationwide. The HRSA pathway programs invest in community-driven K-16 outreach, scholarship, loan repayment, mentorship, and support services for future health care professionals from underrepresented backgrounds – strengthening and diversifying the health workforce and improving patients’ access to high-quality care.
The AAMC has also endorsed bills to improve the community college pathway into medicine – an underutilized source of diversity – as well as to expand medical schools in underserved communities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Simultaneously, we must ensure equitable access to federal student aid and loan repayment programs for all medical students and residents, particularly any those without the financial resources to apply to or attend medical school. The AAMC has endorsed legislation to establish a “Pathway to Practice” program that would help address the burden of medical education debt for students from underrepresented backgrounds and support their medical residency training.
It’s imperative that Congress increase funding for these health workforce programs to foster a diverse cohort of physicians who aim to improve the health of people everywhere. To acknowledge Black History Month, let your representatives know how important it is to pursue health equity and to bolster HRSA and other pathway programs by sharing why you advocate with the AAMC Action community.