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The Health of the Nation: Why Affirmative Action Is Needed In Medical School Admissions

The Health of the Nation: Why Affirmative Action Is Needed In Medical School Admissions
By Dr. Charles Terrell

As we begin to consider possible U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the University of Michigan cases, we seem to miss the point on how truly devastating a ruling that makes race-conscious decisions unlawful would be for our society.

We understand the short-term realities — that such a decision would limit the numbers of minorities on college campuses — but it’s often difficult to understand the long-term problems that would arise from a lack of diversity in higher education. In medical education, however, the long-term consequences are clear. A ruling that makes the use of race in college admissions unlawful would severely harm the health of the nation.

Up until the 1960s, medical schools were as segregated as most other institutions in American society. Three-quarters of all African American physicians were trained at the country’s two historically Black medical schools, Howard University and Meharry Medical College. The other 81 medical schools at that time enrolled, on the average, only one Black student every other year. The past four decades have seen a great deal of progress, and affirmative action programs have served as a successful mechanism for increasing diversity. But there is still a great deal of work to be done if medical school classes are to accurately reflect our society. Today, African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics and American Indians continue to be underrepresented in medical schools.

Barriers still exist for minorities interested in medicine. These problems can be viewed as the legacy of three centuries of overtly racist laws and traditions. These problems include high rates of poverty and lack of access to educational opportunities among minority populations. In light of this reality, there is a principled, ethical argument for increasing diversity in medical education using affirmative action programs. A just society must ensure that equal opportunity exists for all of those that are both capable and interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

There are also vital, practical needs for affirmative action. These needs all derive from the fact that affirmative action continues to be the most effective tool for promoting diversity in medical education, which is critical for protecting and improving public health.

Diversity in medical education is essential for four major reasons:

• It shapes the quality of medical education for all students. “Culturally competent” physicians possess skills and attitudes that help them treat people from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

• It helps increase access to medical care. Nearly three decades of research indicates that minority physicians are more likely to practice among underserved populations.

• It accelerates advances in medical and public health research. Diversity in the research workforce will continue to lead to investigations of health problems that historically have not received adequate attention.

• Diversity in the health-care industry makes good business sense. A managerial staff that mirrors the racial and ethnic makeup of a health-care organization’s clientele will be more capable of dealing with the needs of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

If the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan’s use of race in its admission’s policies, there will be serious consequences. At a time in which our nation’s minority populations are growing rapidly, and serious health disparities exist among these minority populations, hindering academic medicine’s ability to address these issues is unacceptable and unconscionable.

— Charles Terrell, Ed.D., is vice president of the Division of Community and Minority Programs of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.

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