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Med School Diversity May Help Whites Care Better for Minorities

Findings urge push for broad-based admission policies that reflect ethnic variety

TUESDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthDay News) -- Attending medical schools with high levels of racial and ethnic diversity may better prepare white medical students to care for minority patients, U.S. researchers say.

The study analyzed data from a Web-based survey of 20,112 graduating medical students from 118 medical schools. It found that white students at medical schools with the highest quintile (one-fifth) for student body racial and ethnic diversity, measured by the proportion of underrepresented minority (URM) students, were 33 percent more likely to rate themselves as highly prepared to care for minority patients than white students at medical schools in the lowest diversity quintile -- 61.1 percent vs. 53.9 percent, respectively. This association was strongest in schools in which there was positive interracial interaction.

Dr. Somnath Saha, of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and colleagues also found that white students in the highest URM quintile were 42 percent more likely to have strong attitudes endorsing equitable access to care than those in the lowest URM quintile -- 54.8 percent vs. 44.2 percent.

The survey also showed that 48.7 percent of underrepresented minority students planned to practice in underserved areas, compared with 18.8 percent of non-white students and 16.2 percent of non-URM students.

Among non-white students, there was no significant association between school URM proportions and diversity-related outcomes, said the study, which appears in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a themed issue on medical education.

"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 is 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," Saha and colleagues concluded.

The study emphasizes the need for medical schools to re-examine their admission policies, according to an accompanying editorial.

Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, of Columbia University Medical Center, and Dr. Elizabeth T. Lee-Rey, of the Albert Einstein Hispanic Center of Excellence in the Bronx, wrote that "while approximately half of all URM graduates plan to care for underserved populations, less than 20 percent of white and nonwhite/non-URM individuals had such plans. In addition, less than half of all students in these anonymous surveys responded that access to care was a major problem, and only 42 percent responded that everyone is entitled to adequate health care. These findings alone indicate the need to evaluate the process of admitting and training students in U.S. medical schools."

"However, even with an increasing evidence base, many medical schools are unlikely to prioritize increased URM diversity. For such schools, improvements may come only through changes in leadership or external pressure by community and political forces," they noted.

More information

The American Public Health Association has more about minority health.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, news release, Sept. 9, 2008

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