While growing diversity in the medical field is clearly important for the minority and immigrant communities themselves, a recent Harvard study shows it is also helping contribute to better 30-day survival rates for patients. The study, which examined data gathered from more than 44,200 doctors who focus on internal medicine, and was conducted over a three-year period, suggests that there is more good going on here than just social equality.
What’s the significance?
The study focused on foreign-educated doctors, and so these findings may imply a disparity in the quality or type of training provided. However, as Dr. G. Richard Olds points out, the findings of this research also point to the importance for the healthcare industry to think about how it serves this country’s most medically vulnerable population groups.
“More than 31 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, Native American, or African-American,” Dr. Olds writes in the publication Real Clear Education, “Yet people from these ethnic groups account for just 6 percent of practicing physicians.” He adds that minorities “disproportionately turn to nonwhite physicians” when seeking healthcare, so that this 6% block of physicians serves an amazing 53% of minority patients.
The reasons are certainly understandable on the patient side. When dealing with one of the most vulnerable issues that people confront in their lives—sickness in their own bodies—patients prefer to be examined by someone they identify with, and someone they think might identify more easily with them. Perhaps because of a reluctance to see doctors who they cannot identify with in this way, black, Hispanic, and Native American patients are far less likely to be proactive about their healthcare (despite a higher rate of chronic diseases among these populations) than whites.
When a language barrier is present, that gap between patient and physician grows even more. Unsurprisingly, 40% of non-english speaking Hispanics decide whether or not to visit a doctor based on the language they speak. When I sought healthcare in Mexico (after some bad soup laid me out for a few days), I was overwhelmed and embarrassed by my inability to digest fast, jargon-heavy medical Spanish. Happily, my host served as an interpreter, and I received all the descanso and medicina I needed. Still, had I been there without a local, I may have just toughed it out at home.
Implications for day-to-day practice
One of the takeaways of this study for physicians is that kindness and empathy toward minority patients pays literal dividends in the long-term health of the patient. These patients will reach out to their physicians either if they really feel comfortable with them or if the situation has become too dire to ignore.
And the number of minorities that make up the patient population is only growing. According to Dr. Olds’ article, “Since 1990, the number of foreign-born residents has more than doubled, to roughly 42 million.” Helping establish a relationship of trust now will be indispensable in the near future.