Health & Wellness

Students need to speak to providers who represent them. Here's why!

Idongesit Obeya, Student Health Contributor

Have you ever gone into a health center, hospital or clinic and truly felt, heard, understood and valued? If you have, you will know that this is one of the best feelings.

representation in healthcare allows patients to share their experiences in spaces where they feel both comfortable and safe. This is why the emphasis on diversity and inclusion in healthcare is one that truly leads to patient satisfaction, patient engagement and overall better healthcare outcomes especially for communities of color where there typically is a deep lack of representation.

Students are no different when it comes to this. A lot of times, when students come in contact with healthcare professionals in college, it is either their first time away from home, or their first time seeking medical care independently or their first gynecological or mental health visit. This tends to be the most pivotal point of a young person's life and the positive or negative experiences of care tends to be what shapes their future interaction with, trust or or reliance in healthcare.

Creating a safe space for students is truly a collective effort in ensuring that they learn how to properly advocate for themselves and seek proper healthcare advice. Now let's dive a bit more into why this matters and some of the things to think about as you build or leverage diverse care teams for your students.

Man in White Dress Shirt Holding Black Tablet Computer Beside Woman in White Dress Shirt

Medical professionals must acknowledge and recognize differences among various populations in order to provide the best possible care for all patients and help reduce racial disparities. Diversity among physicians is essential in terms of socioeconomic status, race, gender identity, and so on. Many physicians already recognize the importance of diversity, but there is still work to be done.

To learn more about diversity in health care from the inside, we'll look at why it's important and how students can benefit from seeing providers of color.

What is Diversity in Healthcare?

Diversity in the workplace entails having a workforce made up of people of different races, ages, genders, ethnicities, and orientations. In other words, it refers to when a healthcare facility's medical and administrative staff has a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds.

In today's society, healthcare diversity can refer to a variety of qualities, including but not limited to the following characteristics:

  • Language
  • Race
  • Culture
  • Ethnicity
  • Physical abilities and disabilities
  • Education
  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Political beliefs
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion

Even military service is regarded as a distinct background and experience that should be included in the definition of diversity.

Promoting diversity in healthcare can lead to cultural competency, or the ability of healthcare providers to provide services that meet their patients' unique social, cultural, and linguistic needs.

Why is Healthcare Diversity So Important?

People of color frequently face barriers to accessing equitable healthcare. Paradoxically, disparities in healthcare undermine efforts to improve the nation's health and control rising healthcare costs. To care for an increasingly diverse patient population, a diverse healthcare workforce is required.

Did you know that while African Americans make up 13% of the US population, they make up only 4% of doctors and less than 7% of medical students? Compared to Whites at 82%, only 23% of African Americans, 26% of Hispanics, and 39% of Asian Americans have a physician who shares their race or ethnicity. Diversity in healthcare providers (HCP) helps them better understand the culture, background, and historical events affecting people of color. 

Racial concordance between HCP and patient improves communication and patient health outcomes. Patients with the same race HCP report more mutual respect than patients with different race HCPs. These factors influence whether a patient feels comfortable disclosing information to their provider and receiving culturally sensitive and resource-appropriate treatment. Despite the benefits of having representation in healthcare, many patients do not have racial concordance in their healthcare experience. 

According to research, physicians of color are more likely to treat minority patients and work in underserved communities. Others argue that a shared racial or cultural background with one's doctor may also help foster communication and trust.

Research also tells us that wherever diversity is encouraged and cultivated, businesses (hospitals included) perform significantly better. 

  • Diversity has an impact even before a medical worker enters the field. According to studies, students who study in a diverse student body and faculty make better doctors.
  • Student diversity in medical education is an important component in developing a physician workforce that can best meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population, and it has the potential to be a tool in assisting in the elimination of health and healthcare disparities.
  • Other findings lend support to the idea that racial diversity in higher education is associated with measurable, positive educational outcomes.

In short, the statistics show that diversity leads to better care, better employees, and better outcomes.

Negative health outcomes caused by lack of diversity

This absence of representation is about much more than just appearances. When it comes to health outcomes, a lack of diversity has been linked to severe health complications and even death in people of color. These are just two of the jaw-dropping stats: 

  • When it comes to pregnancy-related deaths, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two or three times more likely to die than white women. Over time, these differences have stayed the same, even though most pregnancy-related deaths can be prevented.
  • There are well-documented racial disparities in hospitalization and death from the COVID-19 virus, with Black, Native American, and Alaska Native population deaths and infections rates increasing disproportionately.

The causes of these poor health outcomes are numerous and complex, ranging from a lack of affordable health insurance to higher rates of chronic, underlying health conditions in some races.

However, it is impossible to deny that some of these negative outcomes are the result of implicit bias or subconscious prejudices against other races. This is a double-edged sword: Not only can implicit bias lead to doctors failing to treat patients fairly, but bigoted patients who distrust healthcare workers can also cause issues by refusing to listen to their advice.

Why Should Students of Color be Seen by Providers of Color?

There are major risks that can be linked to the lack of diversity in healthcare. This is why students of color can immensely benefit from seeing healthcare providers of color. The following are five of the main reasons why. 

Promote Communication 

Man in White Button Up Shirt Using Black Laptop Computer

Be it the result of differences in philosophy, a language barrier, differences in cultural norms (& expectations), or even cultural bias, lack of diversity can lead to the breakdown of communication with students. And when students cannot fully communicate or express their needs, dangerous errors can easily  occur.

Increased Perspectives

Surgeons during Surgery

When providing medical care, psychiatric treatment, and social support to students, a lack of diversity in healthcare might lead to a narrow perspective. It can stifle innovation and innovative thinking, but more crucially, it can make it difficult to make critical judgments about a patient's diagnosis, medical history, or other socioeconomic issues that may affect their health and well-being.

Role Models

Crop black girl playing doctors game and writing in notebook

Mentorship is essential in our medical system. Student physicians, nurses, medical assistants, and administrative personnel will always require the guidance of a mentor to help them succeed in their respective fields. It's critical for healthcare personnel to have role models they can look up to and emulate as they advance in their professions. Minority students may struggle to locate mentors with whom they can identify and learn due to a lack of diversity. As a result, their professional development and capacity to give the greatest patient care in the future may suffer.

Promote Future Diversity

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Although this is an obvious consequence, it is critical to the future success of any healthcare organization. The less diverse your medical staff is today, the more difficult it will be to cultivate diversity within your team tomorrow.

Reduce Bias

Operation, Surgery, Hospital, Doctor, Patient

Bias does not always have to be communicated directly in a healthcare context for it to be a concern. Bias can still influence student judgments when it is incorporated in an institution's policies and procedures. This is known as implicit bias in a system. Greater diversity has the potential to mitigate the negative impacts of implicit prejudice in patient care.

The importance of cultural competence

Cultural competence in medicine refers to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors required of a healthcare professional in order to provide optimal care and services to patients from a diverse range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Diversity in the workplace has numerous advantages for healthcare providers, their employees, and their patients – as the more accurately a patient is represented and understood, the better they can be treated.