Medical students who attend racially and ethnically diverse medical schools say they are better equipped to care for patients in a diverse society, according to a new study led by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.
The research, which appears in the Sept. 10 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first to examine the link between medical school diversity and educational benefits.
"The effects of a diverse student body have been demonstrated in higher education, but we wanted to see if the results also would apply in medical school education," said senior author LuAnn Wilkerson, senior associate dean of medical education at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Do white students educated in a racially diverse environment show a greater sensitivity to the health care needs of traditionally underrepresented minority populations or feel better prepared to meet those needs?"
The research team explored whether the proportion of minority students within a medical school made a difference in three outcomes: First, whether students said they felt prepared to care for diverse patient populations; second, their attitudes about access to health care; and third, their plans to care for patients in areas that are traditionally underserved by the health care system.
The authors defined diversity as the proportion of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the degree to which the medical schools promoted interracial interaction. They excluded data from Puerto Rican and historically black medical schools, where minority groups comprise the majority of students.
Using data supplied by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the researchers examined the responses of more than 20,000 graduating medical students from 118 medical schools during a two-year period. They found that white students who attended racially diverse medical schools said they felt better prepared than students at less diverse schools to care for patients from racial and ethnic groups other than their own. They were also more likely to endorse access to adequate health care as a societal right rather than a privilege.
The authors found no association between the diversity of a medical school, however, and whether white students intended to provide care in underserved areas.
Many medical schools have policies and programs aimed at achieving racial diversity and increasing the numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students, who are underrepresented in the physician workforce. These policies have come under scrutiny in recent years as being unnecessary and discriminatory.
"We argue that student diversity in medical education is a key component in creating a physician workforce that can best meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and could be a tool in helping to end disparities in health and health care," said co-author Paul Wimmers, an assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The findings lend support to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have recognized that racial diversity in higher education is associated with measurable, positive educational benefits.
The authors also found that student body diversity is necessary, but not sufficient alone, for all students to realize the full educational benefits of diversity. Medical schools must actively promote positive interaction among students from different backgrounds and have a critical mass of minority students to achieve such benefits, the authors say.
The study was led by Dr. Somnath Saha, of the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Oregon Health and Science University, and included former UCLA researcher Gretchen Guiton, now at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
No sponsor or funding organization played a role in the design or conduct of the study; the analysis or interpretation of the data; or the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript.