Diversity Better Prepares Medical Students to Care for Minority Patients

White medical students who attend schools with greater racial and ethnic diversity among the student body are more likely to rate themselves as highly prepared to care for minority populations, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a theme issue on medical education.

Most medical schools in the United States explicitly seek to create diversity within their student bodies; believing it exposes students to a broad array of ideas, experiences, and perspectives, and better prepares them to meet the needs of a multicultural American population, according to background information in the article. There has been little evidence, however, that racial and ethnic diversity in medical schools produces educational benefits.

Medical students

Somnath Saha, MD, MPH, of Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, and colleagues conducted a study to assess whether the proportion of minority students within medical schools is associated with students’ perceived preparedness to care for diverse patient populations. A web-based survey was administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges to 20,112 graduating medical students (64% of all graduating students in 2003 and 2004) from 118 allopathic medical schools in the United States. Historically black and Puerto Rican medical schools were excluded.

The researchers found that white students within the highest quintile (one-fifth) for student body racial and ethnic diversity, measured by the proportion of underrepresented minority (URM) students, were 33% more likely to rate themselves as highly prepared to care for minority patients than those in the lowest diversity quintile (61.1% versus 53.9%, respectively). This association was strongest in schools in which students perceived a positive climate for interracial interaction. White students in the highest URM quintile were 42% more likely to have strong attitudes endorsing equitable access to care (54.8% versus 44.2%, respectively). These associations became apparent as the proportion of minority students increased above the 60th percentile.

Underrepresented minority students were substantially more likely than both white and nonwhite/non-URM students to plan to practice in underserved areas (48.7% versus 18.8% versus 16.2%, respectively). For nonwhite students, there were no significant associations between student body URM proportions and diversity related outcomes.

“Our study lends empirical support for the Supreme Court’s rationale (i.e., that student body racial diversity is associated with measurable, positive, student outcomes). It also indicates that a diverse student body is likely to be necessary but not sufficient. Medical schools may need to actively foster positive interaction among individuals from different backgrounds to derive the benefits of diversity. Additionally, our analysis supports the concept of ‘critical mass,’ whereby a certain proportion of minority students are considered necessary to realize the benefits of diversity. These results can guide medical schools in shaping policies for recruiting, admitting, and retaining URM students as one component of achieving diversity to help them fulfill their educational missions,” the authors concluded.

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