Racial and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in the healthcare workforce despite increased attention toward improving diversity, and a new analysis predicts it will only get worse in the coming years.
An analysis of diversity occupational data published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open found Black and Latino individuals were underrepresented across 10 healthcare professions when compared to their proportion of working-age adults.
Black individuals made up between 3% and 11% of health professions in 2019 despite accounting for approximately 12% of the working age population. Latino representation in the health professions studied ranged from 3% to 11% despite making up 18% of working-age adults. Native Americans accounted for 0.6% of the overall U.S. workforce in 2019, but their representation among the healthcare professions ranged from zero to as high as 0.9%.
The study found greater diversity among new graduates in 2019 who were entering into healthcare professions compared with the demographics of the current healthcare workforce. But the level of representation among Black graduates was lower than that of Black individuals currently in the healthcare workforce in five of 10 occupations.
The data suggest efforts to recruit more people of color into the healthcare workforce through mentoring and education pipeline programs have had little impact, according to study lead author Edward Salsberg, co-director of the Health Workforce Diversity Tracker project at George Washington University's Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity in Washington, D.C.
"The documentation on the education side shows that we really have a long way to go to get to having a workforce that's representative of our nation," Salsberg said.
Some professional programs have turned toward offering more advanced degrees, which may make them less accessible to some students, he said. Physician assistant programs as of last September are required to award a master's level degree to maintain their accreditation.
"If you're going to add an additional degree requirement, you need to think carefully about what other steps you can take to compensate for that additional barrier to access," Salsberg said.
Diversity concerns have been an area of focus for healthcare employers for years. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show nearly four in 10 Americans in 2020 identified as belonging to a race or ethnicity other than white.
As the population become more diverse, stakeholders have begun to recognize the value in having a healthcare workforce that reflects those changes. Evidence has shown healthcare organizations with more diverse workforces increase their likelihood of providing more culturally competent care, which has been associated with better patient engagement and health outcomes.
Dr. David Acosta, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, felt stakeholders have probably done as much as they can through methods like educational pipeline programs, but that it was time for other approached that required academic leaders to make a larger commitment toward finding ways to recruit and retain a more diverse array of students.
"What we know is that leadership matters," Acosta said. "It's about being deliberate and also having an intentionality."