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Minority Physicians Care for Most Underserved Patients in US

  • Jessica Berman

A new study has found that physicians who are ethnic minorities - including black, Hispanic and Asian doctors - care for the majority of disadvantaged patients in the U.S. The authors of the study are calling for an expansion of the minority physician workforce to meet the growing demand for doctors to treat underserved patients.

Based on a 2010 survey of more than 7,000 patients across the United States, researchers from Harvard University in Massachusetts found that minority doctors care for 54 percent of the country’s underserved patients. Some 70 percent of non-English speaking patients are seen by minority physicians, according to the survey.

Among the other findings - Asian, Hispanic and Black patients were up to 26 times more likely to be cared for by a doctor of the same race. And low income patients were one-and-a-half to two times more likely to be treated by a minority physician.

The study’s lead author is Lydonna Marrast, a researcher and physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

While it’s not surprising that minority patients want to be treated by a doctor of the same race or ethnic background, Marrast says the data don’t indicate why.

“Is it purely patients? Is it purely physicians? The data itself doesn’t allow us to get that answer. We can only speculate. And we know it’s a combination of both - choices made by physicians on terms of where they practice, but also choices made by patients in terms of who they want as their primary care provider," said Marrast.

Many minority physicians come from backgrounds similar to that of their underserved patients, according to Marrast, who says many doctors want to serve minority patients.

But she worries that there are more underserved patients than there are doctors to treat them. The situation has become more acute since the U.S. Congress passed a law extending paid health care to uninsured Americans. Marrast says minority doctors could fill the gap.

“Minority physicians to a large extent care for underserved patients. And so one potential solution, one concrete solution, to this possible access issue that is individuals having insurance but not being able to find providers, is to increase the number of underrepresented minority physicians," she said.

Researchers say that means medical schools should take into account the needs of the entire health care system when considering applications from minority students.

A survey on the role of minority doctors in health care in the United States is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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