Diversity in Medicine has Measurable Benefits

Published in Dome - June 2016

I recently read a provocative article proposing that the term “diversity”—through overuse and insincere usage—has become an empty signifier for many people.

As leaders of an academic health center, we use that word a lot—from our Strategic Plan to our statement of core values to myriad corporate communications. The way to make sure that the term does not get diluted is to back it up with meaningful action.

For example, at Johns Hopkins Medicine, we recently created and filled two new executive roles: James Page as chief diversity officer and Lisa Cooper as vice president for health care equity. Additionally, we: 

  • Created a fund for retaining underrepresented minority faculty.
  • Required that a formal search committee become part of the hiring process for every leadership position in our health system and stipulated that each member of the committee complete training in unconscious bias.
  • Vastly expanded our STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) internship programs for youths from low socioeconomic backgrounds and launched a new initiative to hire locally in Baltimore City.

Our commitment to diversity goes beyond whom we recruit and enroll, however. Drawing upon our racial and cultural differences is crucial to executing our mission to improve health.

We all know that social and cultural factors play a major role in health and illness. At Johns Hopkins, we drill this into trainees with the Genes to Society curriculum. It is important to develop cultural competencies in care providers to help them respect patients’ values and habits, and to bridge gaps in understanding their concerns.

While racial and ethnic minorities make up 26 percent of the total U.S. population, only about 6 percent of practicing physicians and 9 percent of nurses are Latino, African-American or Native American.

In Baltimore, where 65 percent of the population is African-American and where the Latino population has increased by nearly 50 percent in the last six years, there is a similar disconnect between providers and patients.

We are in the process of building a diverse workforce capable of relating to our patients and speaking their language, both literally and figuratively. This is not just about fairness—diversity in medicine has measurable benefits.

Studies show that students trained at diverse schools are more comfortable treating patients from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. When the physician is the same race as the patient, patients report higher levels of trust and satisfaction. The visits even last longer—by 2.2 minutes, on average. When patients enter our hospitals, they want to see staff members and physicians who resemble them.

All of this matters if we are going to start chipping away at the troubling health disparities we see in this region. Maryland has the nation’s highest median income, yet it ranks 33rd among U.S. states for geographic health disparities. White babies born in Baltimore City have a life expectancy that’s six years longer than their African-American counterparts.

We need to partner with community organizations and actively build relationships with those who may not trust the medical establishment. Another crucial step is examining our own practices to ensure we are providing the same level of care for all who enter our hospitals.

In a city with excellent health care infrastructure and two premier academic medical institutions, far too many members of our community don’t get the health care they need. Our commitment to diversity is also a pledge to change that.