September 26, 2003

Opinion

Congress Can’t Afford Not to Invest in Diversity in Medical Schools

By Dr. Elena Rios

WASHINGTON, DC – Thousands of students entered medical school this fall and found that absent from their classrooms was the face of a diverse student body as defined by a recent Supreme Court decision. In its place was a growing discussion of diversity in higher education, and in particular, our nation’s medical schools.

As society has become more diverse – the Hispanic population alone swelled nearly 10 percent in just two years – medical schools have become alarmingly less so. Already underrepresented in the classroom, the number of minority students entering medical school dropped nearly 12 percent from 1995 to 2001.

It’s time for action to reverse this disturbing trend. At a recent congressional briefing, the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA) and The California Endowment called on Congress to allocate more funds to Health Careers Opportunities and Center of Excellence programs to increase the number of minority students in medical schools. In doing so, Congress would be abiding by a recent Supreme Court ruling on admission policies at the University of Michigan Law School.

According to the Supreme Court, diversifying student bodies is a compelling state and national issue not only because we as a diverse nation need to create a stimulating intellectual climate but also because, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it, “effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible is to be realized.”

“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” O’Connor wrote for the court.

That could not be truer for the medical professions. While Hispanics, blacks and American Indians represent more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, they make up fewer than 14 percent of physicians, 9 percent of nurses and 5 percent of dentists.

Hispanics especially are being left behind – and suffering the consequences of unequal access to health care. The nation’s 38.8 million Hispanics are 13.3 percent of our population. Yet Hispanics represent only 5 percent of doctors, 3.4 percent of dentists and 2 percent of nurses.

In its ruling, the nation’s highest court asserted that race and ethnicity are important factors – but not the only ones – in admissions policies and that there are social and educational benefits to multiethnic campuses.

Students must be academically prepared for college and meet schools’ admissions requirements. They must be disciplined and determined to achieve. And they must be deeply interested in higher learning so they can broaden their minds with the problems of society and help determine their solutions.

Our concern – that the pool of minority medical professionals is alarmingly low – was the focus of a congressional briefing Sept. 24. NHMA and The California Endowment advocated for more diversity in the health professions – programs supported by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, (D-TX), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus;

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN); and other forward-thinking leaders. We called on Congress to recruit Hispanics to medical, nursing and dental schools, provide scholarships and create leadership training to increase the pool of Hispanic medical professionals and faculty.

“It’s time for the nation to make a proportionate investment in the Hispanic community,” said Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and CEO of The California Endowment. “There’s no reason that Hispanics should suffer an unequal burden of disease, disability and death in the world’s most powerful nation. Diversity in the health professions equals better health care for all Americans.”

Eliminating disparity is within our reach. First, we must get more Hispanics interested in these professions by educating them at a young age. Second, we need to give them the academic resources and support to succeed – funding, mentors and summer school and camps.

Third, we need Congress’ help to create and support incentives so Hispanic doctors will work in underserved areas where they will reach the neediest among us.

Society can do its part. We need our Hispanic medical professionals to become faculty members, role models and researchers. We need them at the front lines of research so they can help develop more knowledge about treatments and interventions to administer to our Hispanic communities.

This multi-pronged approach also needs a shift in thinking that this critical shortage is just a minority problem. It’s not. It affects every person who needs a doctor, visits the dentist or has a prescription filled.

The Supreme Court has taken the first step. Now we Americans, our leaders and institutions of higher learning need to follow through as our nation transforms itself into a more diverse society.

Dr. Elena Rios is president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, a nonprofit representing Hispanic physicians in the United States.

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