4 policy recommendations to address barriers women physicians of color face in U.S. healthcare

Women of color will be the majority of their gender by 2050, according to the Greenlining Institute. Unless policymakers take action now, however, they will continue to be severely underrepresented among active physicians in the United States.

For their study, Greenlining, a nonprofit that advocates for economic opportunity and empowerment of people of color, teamed up with Artemis Medical Society, which works to generate a supportive environment for women of color within the medical community. Their report (PDF) details findings based upon a series of interviews with women of color currently practicing as physicians, looking to explain their underrepresentation in the field.

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The most recent available statistics show women of color representing only 11.7% of active M.D. physicians in the United States. Interviewees in the report described barriers ranging from active discouragement of their career aspirations to casual discrimination among medical school lecturers and residency faculty.

More than half indicated they had never met a physician who matched their racial identity.

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“The lack of diversity and equity in medicine, coupled with persistent racism and sexism, denies women physicians of color and their patients fair and equitable treatment,” the report concludes. It suggests policymakers target four general areas in their efforts to level the playing field:

  • Improve educational support for women of color. The report recommends greater support for STEM education at all levels, along with scholarships, grants and training opportunities that community healthcare organizations, along with colleges and universities, can use to develop a more diverse “pipeline” of aspiring physicians.
  • Address structural discrimination throughout the healthcare sector. Casual and implicit bias exist in areas such as pay inequity, a lack of support for pregnant workers, and a general lack of diversity among healthcare leaders, per the report.
  • Increase diversity among medical school students and faculty., Just as cultural competence yields a better patient experience, increased diversity among medical school faculty and medical students would yield a more supportive environment for students and boost representation throughout the field. The report recommends increased recruitment activity from underserved communities as a way to address both issues of diversity and care gaps in socioeconomically challenged areas.
  • Improve support structures for practicing physicians. Interviewees reported an urgent need for a more diverse mentorship network to guide young physicians’ personal and professional development. The report suggests investing in robust mentorship programs will yield results by developing a more diverse set of physician leaders and increasing pressure within institutions to deal with the unique challenges faced by women of color.