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Medical, Dental Schools Are Seeing Fewer Minority Students in Their Ranks

Medical, Dental Schools Are Seeing Fewer Minority Students in Their Ranks


As the academic year gets under way, the nation’s medical, dental and nursing schools are seeing fewer minorities in the classroom. The numbers are so low that a commission, led by former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, is examining how to boost minorities in the medical field.

“We are hearing from deans and other university officials who are saying they have none or only one new Black or Hispanic student in their classrooms for the first time in decades,” Sullivan says.

While African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians represent more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, they represent less than 14 percent of physicians, 9 percent of nurses, and only 5 percent of practicing dentists.

The Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce held its first hearing on the matter this summer in Atlanta, collecting testimonies from educators, local legislators, business leaders, students and community advocates. Just last month, the 15-member commission held hearings in Denver and is planning to hold hearings in other major cities before the end of the year (see Black Issues, May 22).

“Although the problem of underrepresentation of minorities in the health professions is well documented, both state and federal tax dollars continue to support medical schools and residency training programs whose production of physicians falls far short of the goal,” Dr. George Rust told the commission at the Atlanta hearing. “In 1997 the Medical College of Georgia had only one African American student matriculate in its freshman class,” said Rust, professor of family medicine and deputy director, National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine.

“The real questions should no longer focus on ‘does it matter’ — but rather how to address the long-standing need for greater depth and diversity in our health care work force. The ‘how’ must consider a wide range of multi-faceted interventions that bring together parents, young people, educators and educational institutions, providers and professional associations, federal, state and local agencies, and society in general,” said Valerie Hepburn, director of the division of health planning for the Georgia department of community health, also testifying before the commission at its Atlanta hearing.

Recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action in college admissions does not offer a solution for the lack of minorities in health-related fields, according to Sullivan.

“We know this ruling will not automatically lead to changes in how schools, especially health professional schools’ recruit, admit and retain underrepresented minority students,” Sullivan says. “It will take innovative approaches by schools to fulfill the dream of putting a health professions career within reach for more of our nation’s qualified minority students.”

Findings from the hearings will inform the commission’s final report, scheduled for release in Spring 2004, on bringing about systemic change at U.S. health professionals schools, and ultimately, to eliminate disparities in health status and unequal access to health services. The commission is administered by the Duke University School of Medicine and funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

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