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Racial diversity of physicians in the USA

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In the United States, racial and ethnic minorities have higher rates of chronic disease, obesity, and premature death than white people.

Black patients, in particular, have among the worst health outcomes, experiencing higher rates of 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.

The Harvard Business Review says that a number of factors contribute to these health disparities, but one problem has been a lack of diversity among physicians.

African Americans make up 13 per cent of the US population, but only four per cent of US doctors and less than seven per cent of US medical students. Of active US doctors in 2013, 48.9 per cent were white, 11.7 per cent were Asian, 4.4 per cent were Hispanic or Latino, and 0.4 per cent were Native American or Alaska Native.

Research has found that physicians of colour are more likely to treat minority patients and practise in underserved communities. And it has been argued that sharing a racial or cultural background with one’s doctor helps promote communication and trust.

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at how changing this ratio might improve health outcomes – and save lives.

Researchers set up an experiment that randomly assigned black male patients to black or non-black male doctors, to see whether having a doctor of their race affected patients’ decisions about preventive care.

They found that black men seen by black doctors agreed to more, and more invasive, preventive services than those seen by non-black doctors. And this effect seemed to be driven by better communication and more trust.

Increasing demand for preventive care could go a long way toward improving health. A substantial part of the difference in life expectancy between white and black men is due to chronic diseases that are amenable to prevention.

By encouraging more preventive screenings, the researchers calculate, a workforce with more black doctors could help reduce cardiovascular mortality by 16 deaths per 100,000 per year – resulting in a 19 per cent reduction in the black-white male gap in cardiovascular mortality and an 8 per cent decline in the black-white male life expectancy gap.