Group offers ways to close medicine's diversity gap

The Sullivan Commission, an independent task force, sees academic coaching, mentoring and financial aid as key to training more minority physicians.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Oct. 11, 2004

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Ben Carson, MD, is a neurosurgeon, director of the division of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Craniofacial Center.

Dr. Carson, who is black and grew up in a low-income, single-parent home, would be none of these things if he had listened to his medical school adviser, who told him he wasn't cut out for the profession.

His story is just one example of the hurdles minorities often face in pursuing a medical career, according to the Sullivan Commission, an independent, nonprofit group established to address such issues.

If the nation is to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding minority population, understanding and eradicating such obstacles will be critical to raising up more doctors like Dr. Carson, the commission said in its final report "Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions."

Louis W. Sullivan, MD, chair of the commission and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said it will take a commitment from government, business, educators, professional associations and private citizens alike to accomplish this task.

"We're hoping this report will have a major impact," Dr. Sullivan said.

So far, 50 organizations, including the American Medical Association, have endorsed the report, he said.

AMA President John C. Nelson, MD, MPH, said the AMA was involved with several initiatives to increase the number of minority doctors and improve the delivery of care to minorities. "One example is the AMA's effort to reach out to minority children through the Minority Affairs Consortium's Doctors Back to School program," he said. "Minority physicians visit schools to encourage minority students to consider careers in medicine. The AMA Foundation and the MAC also award $100,000 in scholarships annually to assist outstanding medical students."

Dr. Sullivan said practicing physicians could offer support in a number of ways, such as serving as counselors to students in elementary or high school to give them an idea what practicing medicine is like and what is required to become a doctor.

The commission urged teaching hospitals and schools in the health professions to bolster the pipeline of applicants by partnering with public schools to enrich their science classes and to raise students' awareness of the health care professions.

These schools should provide more pre-admissions programs for disadvantaged students -- programs that include science classes, training in study and interviewing skills, and practice with standardized admissions tests, the commission said.

It also encouraged schools to not rely heavily on standardized tests, such as the Medical College Admissions Test, saying these tests do not give a complete picture of a student's potential. For example, the dean of the historically black Morehouse School of Medicine told the commission that despite its students entering with lower average MCAT scores, they passed their board exams with scores comparable with other groups.

The Assn. of American Medical Schools endorsed the recommendations but in a statement pointed out that many medical schools already look beyond applicants' test scores and that such tests are playing a smaller role in admissions decisions for students from academically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The commission called for the Liaison Committee on Medical Education to hold med schools accountable for the diversity of their student bodies, residency programs, faculties and governance boards. It also recommended the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations oversee cultural competency standards for care delivery at hospitals.

The commission suggested that organized medicine play a role in sensitizing medical professionals to cultural competency issues, and that groups such as the AMA could propose mandatory training in cultural competency for all licensed physicians.

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External links

The Sullivan Commission, for the report "Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions" (link)

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