Increased diversity among medical professionals helps counteract the fears of racism, inequality, and other issues that may prevent patients of color from seeking out health care. A more diverse workforce also helps healthcare professionals learn from one another as the field expands to include people with differing backgrounds and perspectives.
Explore this issue:May 2019
For David Brown, MD, associate vice president and associate dean for health equity and inclusion and associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, diversity’s benefits are rooted deeply in his career. He recalled a story one of his African-American residents told him when the resident first had to perform a tracheotomy on a child as an early-career otolaryngologist. The resident went to introduce himself to the patient’s family before beginning the procedure. Seeing that the resident was a person of color like themselves “created a sense of relief and trust,” he said.
“Seeing me, they said they didn’t feel like their child would be experimented on,” the resident told him.
Many marginalized communities have distrust of the healthcare system.“Having people who share their identities helps to foster stronger trust and communication and can lead to fewer healthcare disparities,” Dr. Brown added. Physicians of various ethnicities can help patients feel more comfortable, believing that the provider more fully understands their own cultural perspectives. Without that understanding, a patient’s lack of trust can be perceived as refusal to adhere to a physician’s orders.
As a result, “I no longer call a patient a non-compliant patient; if they don’t show up, you need to ask why,” said Dr. Brown. “Sometimes, they have transportation issues or there’s been a death in the family. If you are more open and more inclusive, you can find out more of the root cause, rather than just assuming they didn’t show up because they are ‘bad’ people.”
Efforts by medical schools and specialty associations and organizations to increase diversity helps build understanding among different groups of people, as well as improve the field of otolaryngology overall. Candidates with different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences begin to fill the pipeline into medical schools, residencies, fellowships, and beyond.
“I would say [the subject of diversity] has become more front and center in the last few years, because the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has made it a priority to ask about the diversity composition of resident trainees,” said Cristina Cabrera-Muffly, MD, associate professor and residency program director in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora. “Unfortunately, otolaryngology has one of the lowest rates of underrepresented minorities (URM) among medical and surgical residencies.”
Diversity in the Workplace
The benefits of diversity in all workplaces, not just medicine, have been publicized. In 2013, the Harvard Business Review reported that diversity, both inherent (including the characteristics one is born with such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation), and acquired (traits such as knowledge learned while living outside the country where one was raised), “unlocks innovation and drives market growth—a finding that should intensify efforts to ensure that executive ranks both embody and embrace the power of differences,” wrote Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the lead author of the study (Harvard Bus Rev. Published December 2013.).
A 2018 study of diversity in venture capital firms, also published in the Harvard Business Review, found that “diversity significantly improves financial performance… and even though the desire to associate with similar people—a tendency academics call homophily—can bring social benefits to those who exhibit it, including a sense of shared culture and belonging, it can also lead investors and firms to leave a lot of money on the table,” wrote lead author Paul Gompers (Harvard Bus Rev. Published July 2018. Available at: hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend). And, finally, a 2004 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences found that “groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers” (PNAS. 2004;101:16385–16389).
“From a social justice standpoint, increasing diversity in the physician workforce has been shown to reduce health disparities,” said Oneida Arosarena, MD, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and a professor of otolaryngology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
What is medicine, and otolaryngology in particular, doing to address diversity in the field?
Diversity in Education
Different academic institutions are taking similar approaches to identifying the best candidates for their medical schools, even when those applicants might not be obvious by traditional measures. At Temple University, which in 2015 established its office of health equity, diversity and inclusion, a diversity council works among all members of the health system community to help address concerns among racial, ethnic, and gender minorities, and also implemented implicit bias training for the medical school’s admissions team. As a result, applicants are considered for admission under holistic review, which analyzes everything about a candidate, rather than merely looking for high marks on standardized tests.
“Traditional medical school and residency committees would just screen people with a cutoff based on a score on the MCATs or USMLE Step 1 test,” said Dr. Arosarena. “But by doing that, you really eliminate people who are great candidates but are not great test takers. Instead, we look at grades as a measure of academic performance, leadership qualities such as whether the candidate was involved as a leader in sports or other organizations, and also humanitarian qualities, such as how involved they were in the community.”
The process also considers how far a candidate has come to achieve what they have achieved. “If both your parents are doctors, it’s not so great a stretch to think you might be a doctor,” said Dr. Arosarena. “If you come from a single-parent and/or a low-income home, you had a lot to overcome to get to the point where you are applying to medical school.”
Holistic review takes longer than simply scanning through test scores for acceptance, and it requires more people to sit on the application committee. But more voices in the process produces a more diverse group of accepted applicants. In 2016, when Temple began using holistic review, there were six accepted URM applicants, out of a total of 210. Today, classes average between 20 and 30 URM.
The University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor is currently three years into a five-year diversity, equity, and inclusion plan to improve diversity at every level so that the climate is more inclusive of all people, said Dr. Brown. Various initiatives, such as training in unconscious bias and other educational efforts, grants for diversity projects by different members of the Michigan community, and mentoring opportunities, all help to increase awareness about the importance of a diverse academic community. All medical departments are asked to attend the Student National Medical Association’s (SNMA) annual conference, where medical students can learn more about different clinical opportunities with the medical school. The students have the opportunity to work through medical simulations alongside Michigan medical faculty and residents.
At Michigan, about 20% of medical students each year are URM, said Dr. Brown, and that number has gone up about 1% each year for the past four years. The percentage of URM residents has doubled in the past three years, from 3% to 6.5% identifying as Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and/or Native American, he added.
Diversity in Otolaryngology
Otolaryngology, like other specialties, is eager to attract the brightest people to the field. To that end, there are several initiatives from organizations such as the Society of University Otolaryngologists (SUO) and the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAOHNS).
Mentoring, coaching, and early exposure to the field of otolaryngology help bring more ethnically and culturally diverse talent and voices into the otolaryngology field, said Carrie L. Francis, MD, SUO’s diversity chair and associate professor and assistant dean of student affairs in the department of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. “Having an otolaryngology presence in medical school is helpful and harkens back to early exposure.” The society does this by developing relationships with various medical student associations and historically Black colleges such as Morehouse and Meharry Medical College as well as the SNMA and the Latino Medical Student Association.
Dr. Cabrera-Muffly cites mentoring as a way to increase diversity in the field of otolaryngology. “It’s important at all levels of the pipeline,” she said. “We need to mentor students to join our field, provide support to residents during their training, and ensure continued mentorship for URM faculty so that they will stay in academics to be examples for the next generation.”
Mentors needn’t be minorities themselves, either, she added. “As a Latina in otolaryngology, my mentors have not all been female or Latino, but they have made a huge impact in my life regardless.” Irrespective of their background or ethnicity, a senior-level person who has made her/his way through the otolaryngology field has a lot to offer earlier-career otolaryngologists. “Most senior faculty are not URM, but chances are that they will be in the position to mentor URM students and residents as the numbers increase.”
Without those increases, “we are doing a disservice to our patients and we are leaving talent on the table,” said Dr. Cabrera-Muffly. “If we discriminate against any group, we leave out the potential world-changing contributions of that group.”
Cheryl Alkon is a freelance medical writer based in Massachusetts.