Diversity in the Physician Workforce is Essential; What Will Happen If the Supreme Court Overturns Affirmative Action?

In October, the Supreme Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. You may have read about the case: the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, applied for undergraduate admission to the University of Texas at Austin but was turned down. If she had graduated in the top 10% of her high school class, she would automatically have been admitted—but she did not.

When admitting students, the University of Texas first accepts all in-state students who place in the top 10%. This policy is race-neutral and fills about 80% of all spaces. The remaining seats are filled according to an evaluation process which considers six factors. Race is one of them.

Fisher is white and she claims that the explicit use of race as a factor in admission to the university violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Within the next few months, the Supreme Court will announce its decision

            What the Case Means for Medical Schools—and Patients

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial warning that the decision will “chart the future of affirmative action in American higher education . . . including admission of students to our nation’s medical schools.”

The editorial’s authors underline the need for a physician workforce that is ethnically and racially diverse:

“To provide good care, physicians must understand the communities and cultures in which they work. An important way to ensure that physicians understand the lives of their patients and to reduce health disparities is to promote diversity.”

I agree, and would add a second argument: if Fisher wins, the Court’s decision will leave millions of Americans without the medical care they desperately need because they live in a place where few physicians want to practice.

In this two-part post, I will be asking four questions:

1) How do we attract more physicians to underserved communities?  Could we entice them with higher salaries?  (Probably not.  A doctor who doesn’t want to raise his kids in rural Alabama won’t set up shop there even if you double his income.)

2) Should we encourage medical schools to practice class-based rather than race-based affirmative action?  This is, at best, a partial solution. A large percentage of low-income Americans are white. If they were admitted to medical school, those who grew up in rural areas might well decide to practice in similar communities where physicians are needed.. But this would not solve a larger problem—the shortage of  Latino, African-American and Native-American primary care doctors available to work both in inner cities and in the many rural areas where minorities are rapidly becoming the majority.

Multiple studies show that outcomes, communication, and compliance improve when a patient is able to see a physician from his own racial or ethnic group. This is not to say that committed white physicians cannot overcome cultural barriers and build strong patient relationships in these communities. But  many fewer choose to work, and raise their families, in remote rural areas that are primarily Latino, Native American, Mexican-American, or African American.

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