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Why Are There So Few Black Doctors in the U.S.?

In recent years, medical schools across the United States have reported increased diversity among applicants and enrollees. The percentage of women and some ethnic and racial groups has gradually risen in medical school programs; but although we have seen some progress, one group continues to be underrepresented in medicine.

According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. population is 13% black, yet only 4% of doctors are black. And while the percentage of black female medical school graduates has grown since 1986, the opposite was true of black male graduates until recently.

In 1986, 57% of black medical school graduates were men. By 2015, that number had plummeted to 35%, even as the total number of black graduates in all fields had risen. Then there’s this sobering fact: fewer black men enrolled in medical school in 2014 than in 1978.

In 2017, AAMC research showed that these numbers were beginning to turn around. The number of overall black applicants increased by 4% (enrollees by 4.6%), and the number of black male applicants rose by 4.4% (matriculants by 7.3%). The dearth of black doctors isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight – but it is crucial that we continue to work toward solutions.

Why There Are So Few Black Doctors – and Why We Need More

Many factors contribute to racial disparities in the physician workforce. Research points to complex reasons that fewer black men are choosing careers in medicine, including economic barriers, lack of role models, limited access to educational opportunities, and implicit and explicit biases.

Black women also face obstacles on their path to becoming physicians. A report from the Greenlining Institute and the Artemis Medical Society interviewed 20 female physicians of color in the U.S., most of them black. More than half said they had questioned their prospects of succeeding in medicine because they had never met a doctor with the same racial identity. And 40% said they recalled a high school or college counselor trying to dissuade them from pursuing a medical career.

Pronounced race gaps on standardized tests have endured for years, and closing the disparity could sharply increase black college graduation rates. Black-white score gaps on the SAT – which, along with the ACT, is a crucial assessment for college admissions – remained almost unchanged from 1996 to 2015. The mean score on the SAT math section is 511 out of 800; the average scores for blacks (428) and Latinos (457) are much lower than those of whites (534) and Asians (598).

These race gaps are even more striking at the tails of the distribution; among the top scorers – those scoring between 750 and 800 – 60% are Asian and 33% are white, compared to 5% Latino and 2% black. And among those scoring between 300 and 350, 37% are Latino, 35% are black, 21% are white, and 6% are Asian.

But while racial disparity in education continues, doctors in the U.S. are caring for an increasingly diverse group of patients, and it is more important than ever to reflect that same diversity in medicine. Research has shown that having more physicians of color can help improve health outcomes for patients.

In one study, researchers recruited more than 1,300 black men and randomly assigned them to a black male doctor or a nonblack male doctor at the same clinic. In advance of meeting their doctors, the patients opted into preventative screening tests, both invasive (such as diabetes screening) and noninvasive (such as blood pressure measurements).

Patients in both groups selected approximately the same number of screening tests. But after speaking with their doctor, black patients paired with a black doctor were significantly more likely to choose every test than patients with a nonblack doctor, especially for invasive screenings. Results also demonstrated increased levels of trust and communication among black patients and black doctors. Patients with black doctors were much more likely to discuss additional health problems ­– and black doctors wrote more notes about their patients than nonblack doctors.

Since racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. have higher rates of chronic disease, obesity, and premature death than white patients – and black men in particular have the lowest life expectancy of any demographic group – increasing diversity among physicians could improve health outcomes and even save lives.

American University of Antigua (AUA) College of Medicine’s mission is to provide a top-quality, innovative education to the next generation of global physicians – diverse students from all over the world who bring their unique perspectives and experiences to their studies. Underrepresented minorities made up only 13% of all medical students in the U.S. in 2016, but at AUA, they made up 40% of enrollment. And while black medical students comprised just 7% of medical school programs in the U.S., at AUA, they composed of more than double of the U.S. average.

AUA strives to bridge the disparities in medicine so that patients from all communities can receive the best care possible.

Learn more about AUA’s commitment to diversity.