Study highlights lack of socioeconomic diversity at medical schools

Medical education has seen some gains in racial and gender diversity in recent years, but a new study puts those shifts in perspective, showing the overrepresentation of medical students from affluent households, overall and within each racial and ethnic group. Noting that certain racial and ethnic groups, especially Black and Latinx students, remain underrepresented at U.S. medical schools, researchers say a more socioeconomically aware admissions process could help diversify the physician workforce.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, the study from researchers at the University of Minnesota (U of M) looks at household income data for the parents of medical students across four major racial categories–Black, Latinx, Asian, and white—along with U.S. Census data on the general population.

The study—touted as the first to describe the socioeconomic diversity of U.S. medical students—shows that a disproportionate share of students in all four major racial categories came from households that ranked in the top 5 percent for annual income ($270,000 or more).

Related: After modified admissions cycle, medical schools enroll most diverse class ever >

A different lens on diversity

Just 5 percent of the nation’s white households meet or exceed that income threshold, but the study found that 29 percent of white medical students came from the top 5 percent of earners. So did 22 percent of Asian medical students, compared with 10 percent of the Asian population overall. Nine percent of Black medical students came from households in the upper 5 percent of income earners; just 1.7 percent of the nation’s Black households overall were in that range. Looking at Latinx medical students, 15 percent were from families in the top 5 percent of earners, a disproportionately wealthy group, given that just 2.2 percent of Latinx households overall have that level of income.

The relative lack of socioeconomic diversity in medical student bodies may help explain why medical schools have been so slow to admit more racially and ethnically diverse students, the study authors say. “Eventually, we need to start thinking about targeting low-income communities that are disproportionately Black and disproportionately Hispanic to increase racial and ethnic diversity in medical schools,” Arman Shahriar, the report’s lead author and a fourth-year medical student at U of M, tells the Sahan Journal. “Overall, we’d have a better health care system if our physicians mirrored our population.” 

Shailey Prasad, U of M Medical School professor and study co-author, tells U.S. News & World Report, “I hope this study will prompt changes in administration processes lest our field continues to be primarily for those with financial means.”

MacKenzie Scott gifts seek to diversify medical profession

That focus on developing physicians equipped to provide “health care for people with circumstances and beliefs of every kind” was one of the guiding forces in the most recent wave of giving from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Among the organizations that received gifts was the National Medical Fellowship (NMF), which announced that Scott donated $12 million to the organization, the largest gift in its 76-year history. NMF has worked toward health equity for decades by providing scholarships to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) medical students. According to NMF President and CEO Michellene Davis, Esq., “NMF will use this unrestricted gift to build its endowment and accelerate our work to invest in the development of BIPOC health care leaders who are laser-focused on eliminating unnecessary and preventable health disparities experienced by communities of color.”

Related: Bloomberg pledges $100 million to historically Black medical schools >

The Tennessean reports that Scott also gave $20 million each to Nashville’s Meharry Medical College and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles, two of the nation’s four historically Black medical schools. In a video about the donation, Meharry’s president and CEO, Dr. James E.K. Hildreth said the gift would advance Meharry’s efforts to develop a more diverse health care workforce and improve health equity. Scott’s $20 million gift to Charles R. Drew University, meanwhile, is the largest private donation in the institution’s history and will aid the university’s “tireless pursuit to cultivate diverse health professional leaders dedicated to social justice and health equity for underserved populations,” the university’s CEO and President Dr. David M. Carlisle told Fox 11 Los Angeles.

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