Decline in Black Male Physicians Could Impact African American Health, Wellness

This op-ed post was written by Patricia A. Maryland, Ph.D. For more about the author, scroll down to the end of the article.

A recent study by the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that the number of African American men applying to medical school is in steady decline. As the nation’s population becomes more ethnically diverse, this issue is not just about diversity for diversity’s sake. This decline in black male physicians could have a negative impact on health and wellness in underserved communities as well as on general access to care.

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As the chief operating officer of Ascension Health–the healthcare subsidiary of Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic and nonprofit health system–I am very focused on our organization’s delivering personalized and compassionate care, particularly in low- to moderate-income communities where healthcare challenges are greatest. Physicians of color, who can knowledgeably treat patients based on a shared heritage and cultural awareness, are at a premium.

To be clear, the issue here is not race as much as it is personal affinity that provides a sense of understanding for a patient. In fact, whether the commonality is culture, race, language, or gender, research shows that patients respond to physicians with whom they feel a kinship.

This notion of affinity or kinship is important as studies show that black doctors are usually more willing to return to underserved communities of color to offer care. This not only provides them with a sense of mission and higher purpose, it also contributes to the overall well-being of the patients they serve. These patients are more comfortable with the doctor because they believe that the person caring for them shares a cultural bond. This allows for ease in building trust and, hopefully, greater candor in discussing ailments which may allow the doctor to better assess and treat a patient.

Historically, African Americans suffer disproportionately from some of the most debilitating chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. This is due in part to long-standing barriers to quality care. As a result, some in the African American community have developed chronic health concerns that affect their overall wellness and quality of life.

My motivation for entering healthcare as a career is driven in part by my own personal experience. My mother suffered for more than 30 years with Type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, my family never felt convinced that she received the quality of care she deserved. I don’t believe that her substandard care was due to racism or a lack of empathy as much as it was due to blind neglect. It is well documented that substantial disparities exist in the quality and quantity of medical care African Americans receive. In addition, their special needs and responses to pharmaceutical treatment have also been undervalued or ignored.

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