A new commission headed by former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, M.D., and including several physician executives has convened to study the lack of minority representation in medicine, dentistry and nursing.
The Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce brings together health, business, legal and other industry leaders to find solutions that will improve diversity in health professions and subsequently improve health quality in minority communities.
"Examining the education and training that health professionals receive is critical to efforts to eliminate alarming racial and ethnic health disparities," Sullivan says. "Any ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court affecting college admissions will do little, if anything, to change the fact that the consequences of health disparities are grave and will only be addressed through sustained effort and commitment. This commission will detail that case to the American public."
Physician executive members of the panel include:
- Regina Benjamin, M.D., founder and CEO, Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic
- Patricia Gabow, M.D., CEO and medical director, Denver Health
- Benjamin Muneta, M.D., president, Association of American Indian Physicians
- Joan Reede, M.D., dean, Office of Diversity and Community Partnership, Harvard Medical School
- John Rich, M.D., medical director, City of Boston Public Health Department
- Elena Rios, M.D., president and CEO, National Hispanic Medical Association
- John Rowe, M.D., chairman and CEO, Aetna
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Battle Creek, Mich., is funding the commission, which will be administered by the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.
Sullivan notes that while the overall sizes of the medical school population and minority representation in medical schools have increased significantly between 1950 and today, growth has stalled in recent years.
African-Americans, for example, represented less than 2% of U.S. physicians in 1950 and 8% of medical students in the late 1980s, but that number has dipped to 7.5% now, Sullivan says. Hispanic medical students have stayed in the range of 5% to 6% and Native American medical students never have reached even 1% representation.
"Very little if any progress has been made in the past decade," Sullivan says. "In some instances, we seem to be losing ground. We never have come close to the goals articulated in the '60s and '70s to have greater (healthcare workforce) diversity that reflects the population."
One reason for the stagnation has been insufficient attention given to issues such as financing and attraction of the medical profession. The average medical student graduates with a debt burden of $100,000, Sullivan says. But the average income for African-American and Hispanic families is $30,000 to $40,000.
"The growth of managed care, falling physician incomes and increasing malpractice premiums in the aggregate have made medicine a less attractive profession in the minds of some people," he says.
Sullivan notes that health disparities have economic as well as social ramifications, which the commission also hopes to address.
"A population who is not healthy uses and needs more social support services and is a less vigorous population as wage earners and taxpayers contributing to the economy," Sullivan says.