Industry Voices—Lack of diversity stymies culturally competent care. Let's change it

Think about the last time you chose a healthcare provider. It’s a big decision based on the need for a good doctor and one you can trust.

This decision can be especially critical for patients of color or those who don’t speak English. Research shows that patients often benefit from working with doctors from similar cultural backgrounds. Additionally, patients often feel they have a better chance of being heard and taken seriously when clinicians share their cultural experiences.

While no one wants a segregated system where patients only see providers who look like themselves, provider diversity nurtures a culture in which more care teams develop the ability to deliver high-quality outcomes regardless of patient or provider background.

Unfortunately, our health system lacks the diversity it needs to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes for all its patients. Although Black and Hispanic people make up more than 30 percent of the United States population, they comprise barely more than 10 percent of the doctors and nurses treating patients.

This gap leads to significant patient harm, especially for the patients who need ongoing care, and puts an unfair burden on patients and caregivers to be their own advocates and make sure the health system doesn’t overlook their needs.

Healthcare needs a diverse workforce

Things are beginning to change. In recent years, state and federal policymakers, healthcare companies, leading academic institutions and major philanthropies have made significant, multi-year investments to better understand and address the challenge, focusing on the importance of culturally competent care.  

Nevertheless, our efforts to increase the diversity of the healthcare workforce have yet to fully address disparities in length and quality of life in minority communities. The results prove no single person or organization can create the critical mass of diversity that a culturally competent health system needs. We all need to do more and work together to make progress.

UnitedHealth Group upping its commitment

To accelerate these efforts, the United Health Foundation is stepping up to provide an additional $100 million over the next 10 years to help students pursue clinical careers and help current healthcare providers to upskill their abilities.

With only 155,000 registered nurses and 28,000 medical doctors graduating each year, this is a long-term investment that will meaningfully improve the diversity pipeline of the future healthcare workforce. Our investment, alongside the continued support of policymakers, business leaders and philanthropy, will help achieve the diversity required to sustain cultural change, improve outcomes and deliver the care that every patient deserves.

Working together, we can strengthen the health system and build a diverse healthcare workforce capable of delivering recommended preventative services, achieving higher medication adherence and generating higher patient engagement. This culturally competent healthcare system would better address biases and more thoroughly earn patients’ trust so it can genuinely partner with patients in helping them lead happier and healthier lives.

Patricia L. Lewis is the chief sustainability officer of UnitedHealth Group.