Diversity of Health Care Providers

patricia-bennett1In a series of four posts, we explore key issues raised by the Affordable Care Act and how we need more health care providers to meet the needs of the many new enrollees. In the second post made last week, we asked for your thoughts on how health care providers can be incentivized to practice in our country’s high-need areas. Next week, we explore some of the factors that lead individuals to pursue health care professions.

Research shows that access to and quality of health care services improves when the health care workforce reflects the racial, ethnic, economic, and cultural diversity of its patients. A diverse network of providers can better overcome language and cultural barriers that patients may experience when receiving health care services. Provider diversity improves access to health care for underserved patients – for example, African American and Latino physicians are more likely than White physicians to practice in underserved areas and treat larger numbers of minority and poor patients.[1] Moreover, when given a choice, racial and ethnic minority patients are more likely to choose and continue receiving care from health care providers of their own racial/ethnic background.[2] Despite this evidence, racial/ethnic disparities between our country’s patients and health care providers are extreme. Nationwide, African Americans comprise 13% of the country’s population, but only 4% of its physicians. Latinos comprise 17% of our total population, but only 5% of our physicians. [3] Amongst this country’s nurses, 83% are White and only 5% are African American. Policymakers need to be made aware of these racial/ethnic disparities and the impact they have on peoples’ health so that they can create policies and allocate resources that support the training and development of a more representative health care provider population. What are some of your other ideas for how we can bridge this diversity gap?

[1] Kington R, Tisnado D, Carlisle DM. Increasing racial and ethnic diversity among physicians: an intervention to address health disparities? In Smedley BD, Stith AY, Colburn L, Evans CH, (eds.). The Right Thing to Do, The Smart Thing to Do: Enhancing Diversity in the Health Professions. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

[2] Saha S, Taggart SH, Komaromy M, Bindman AB. Do patients choose physicians of their own race? Health Affairs. 2000; 19: 76-83.

[3] http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html & http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2011/rwjf71998

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