Percentage of Doctors Who Are Black Barely Changed in 120 Years

Alicia Ault

April 21, 2021

The percentage of physicians in the United States who are Black has increased only 4% in the past 120 years, and the number of Black male doctors has not changed at all since 1940, according to a new study.

In 1900, 1.3% of physicians were Black. In 1940, 2.8% of physicians were Black, and by 2018 — when almost 13% of the population was Black — 5.4% of doctors were Black, reports Dan Ly, MD, PhD, MPP, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a study published online April 19 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The proportion of male Black physicians was 2.7% in 1940 and 2.6% in 2018.

Ly also found a significant wage gap. The median income earned by White doctors was $50,000 more than the median income of Black physicians in 2018. Ly based his findings on the US Census Decennial Census long form, accessed via IPUMS, a free database funded by the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

"If we care about the health of the population, particularly the health of Black patients, we should care about how small the proportion of our physicians who are Black is and the extremely slow progress we have made as a medical system in increasing that proportion," Ly told Medscape Medical News.

Ly said he took on this research in part because previous studies have shown that Black patients are more likely to seek preventive care from Black doctors. Thus, increasing the numbers of Black physicians could narrow gaps in life expectancy between Whites and Blacks.

He also wanted to see whether progress had been made as a result of various medical organizations and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) undertaking initiatives to increase workforce diversity. There has been "very, very little" progress, he said.

Norma Poll-Hunter, PhD, the AAMC's senior director of workforce diversity, said Ly's report "was not surprising at all."

The AAMC reported in 2014 that the number of Black men who apply to and matriculate into medical schools has been declining since 1978. That year, there were 1410 Black male applicants and 542 Black enrollees. In 2014, there were 1337 applicants and 515 enrollees.

Since 2014, Black male enrollment has increased slightly, rising from 2.4% in the 2014–2015 school year to 2.9% in the 2019–2020 year, the AAMC reported last year.

In addition, among other historically underrepresented minorities, "we really have seen very small progress" despite the increase in the number of medical schools, Poll-Hunter told Medscape Medical News.

The AAMC and the National Medical Association (NMA) consider the lack of Black male applicants and matriculants to be a national crisis. The two groups started an alliance in 2020 aimed at finding ways to amplify and support Black men's interest in medicine and the biomedical sciences and to "develop systems-based solutions to address exclusionary practices that create barriers for Black men and prevent them from having equitable opportunities to successfully enroll in medical school."

Solutions include requiring medical school admissions committees and application screeners to undergo implicit bias awareness and mitigation training, adopting holistic admissions reviews, and incentivizing institutions of higher learning to partner with Black communities in urban and rural school systems to establish K-12 health sciences academies, said NMA President Leon McDougle, MD, MPH.

"There are the systems factors, and racism is a big one that we have to tackle," said AAMC's Poll-Hunter.

Diversity isn't just about numbers, said McDougle, a professor of family medicine and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus, Ohio. "We know that medical school graduates who are African American or Black, Hispanic or Latinx, or American Indian or Alaskan Native are more likely to serve those communities as practicing physicians," McDougle told Medscape.

"The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the urgent need for more African American or Black, Hispanic or Latinx, or American Indian or Alaskan Native physicians," he said. "Inadequate access to culturally competent care has exacerbated existing health disparities, resulting in death and hospitalization rates up to three to four times the rates of European American or White people."

Poll-Hunter also said that studies have shown that diversity in the classroom creates a more enriched learning environment and increases civic mindedness and cognitive complexity, "as well as helps us understand people who are different than ourselves."

The diversity goal "is not about quotas, it's about excellence," she said. "We know that there's talent that exists, and we want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be successful."

Ly has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Gen Intern Med. Published online April 19, 2021. Abstract

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland–based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.


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