Source: Irvine school newspaper New University | Written by: Kellie K. Middleton, M.P.H.
As students and future leaders, we don’t think enough about how minorities have impacted our state’s economy, politics and health care system. If we did, we would understand the grave importance of diversity now more than ever given California’s changing demographics. In health, the governor’s current reform proposal and an expected physician shortage by 2015 should further heighten our concern for diversity (or lack thereof).

As a woman of color and future medical student, I find it appropriate to commence Black History Month by acknowledging the contributions of minorities in medicine and celebrating past and present physicians of color.

Given the great achievements in healthcare by African American men and women, it is difficult to imagine a time when blacks were denied access to medical education. It was not until the mid 19th century until the first African American, David J. Peck, graduated from Rush Medical College. Following his graduation, the idea of medical school and practice became more real for those with darker skin.

At the start of the 20th century, more (predominately white) medical schools around the country began to admit African Americans. Though small in number, their presence changed the conception, practice, and face of medicine. The trend for increased minority enrollment in U.S. medical schools continued throughout the latter half of the 1900s. Though moving into the new century, it became apparent that not enough is being done on a policy and institutional level to recruit and retain students of color.

Much of the overall decline in minority enrollment is accounted for by decreases in Texas and California, two of the most diverse states in the country. Notably, California ranks no. 5 and no. 1 of all states as having the largest African American and Latino populations, respectively. How is our health care system supposed to serve such a diverse population given its current lack of diversity in medical schools and the physician workforce?

According to the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce, the problem of racial health disparities and the lack of minorities in health professions are undeniably linked. The lack of parity in representation between the California population and the UC medical student body will contribute to current racial health disparities. Research confirms that minority physicians are more likely to treat minority patients and work in underserved communities. With declines in the provision of quality care to people of color, California is expected to experience negative health outcomes.

What makes the situation even more devastating is that by 2015, California will withstand a major physician shortage. What Governor Schwarzenegger now refers to as “broken”, will soon be “shattered” under the pressure from rapid population expansion. In an attempt to fix the current health care system, the new reform proposal is expected to insure 71 percent of the 5.1 million uninsured, of which most will be low-income and racial minorities. So now with the growing diverse population, lack of minority medical students, and expected deficit of all physicians; more than 3.5 million people (nearly half being from underserved communities) will enter into California’s health care system.

To provide quality care to the newly insured populations, California needs a more diverse culturally sensitive health workforce—that is, one with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to provide the best care to a diverse population. When African Americans were allowed to practice medicine in the health care system, more blacks received medical treatment and health outcomes for African American communities improved.

Notable doctors who have greatly contributed to the American health care system include Dr. Vivien Thomas, who developed procedures and conducted the surgery to treat blue baby syndrome; Dr. Patricia Bath the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention, transforming eye surgery; or Dr. Benjamin Carson, who made medical history by separating a pair of Siamese twins attached at the back of the head. Could you imagine what medicine would have lost if such doctors were denied a medical education? The practice of medicine for the sake of all Americans would not be the same.

If the current trends persist for minority enrollment in UC medical schools, our state has a lot to prepare for. As Californians, we need to acknowledge the anticipated health care concerns for minorities in the near future, not to mention, perpetuating racial health disparities if more students of color do not enter the healthcare workforce. What not a better time than at the start of 2008 to honor those who have changed health care history and those who will… if given the opportunity.