There have been great efforts to increase diversity in medicine. Now over half of entering medical students are women, and there has been an increase in underrepresented minorities. However, this is just the beginning. We are nowhere done with improving diversity in medicine, and we still have a long way to go. Physicians that look more like the patients they care for is a great place to start, but it does not end there.
The shift towards a more inclusive physician workforce needs to be reflected at all levels of training, from the classroom to leadership. I would argue that we are far from having true diversity, because the focus has not been on pervasive representation of all groups of people within the medical system. There is not enough representation in leadership or even academic role models. We need all groups to have a seat at the table to really see change in how medicine is practiced.
However, diversity in medicine does not just end with an inclusive workforce. Physicians that look diverse does not equal diversity. The importance of diversity in personality and background is often overlooked. It is not just a matter of meeting a certain quota of women, ethnic minorities, or other underrepresented people. When we allow people to bring their unique backgrounds to work, we can open the door to new innovation and collaboration. Diversity does not work if everyone still talks and acts the same. The beauty of diversity is when it shows us there is more than one way to be an effective physician.
It is vital that early in training medical students feel they can be their authentic selves when interacting with patients. This will allow for a genuine connection that can be therapeutic and rewarding for both patient and physician.
There is no cookie-cutter physician, and we must encourage unique patient-doctor styles during the preclinical and clinical years in medical school. Of course, we want physicians to have excellent bedside manners, but this can be expressed in many different ways. To be honest, there is not one type of physician personality that will work for every patient. This is what makes the diversity in medical school a beautiful thing.
You should not have shame about where you come from. Your history shapes you, but does not define you. Let those experiences shine through when caring for people at their most vulnerable times. You may share similar cultural values that allow you to breakdown boundaries and talk about health in a context that makes sense for the patient. This can be difficult to do when others around you don’t look or talk like you do. There is this almost automatic feeling of needing to fit in and not stand out.
Caring for patients cannot take place in a bubble. Health is complex and starts long before a patient walks into a room. People bring their social context the moment they step into the exam room. You will not be able to provide the best care for the patient if you do not meet them where they are. I have had patients grateful just to have someone that looks like them. There is an immediate sense of ease when you are viewed as an ally and part of the community, rather than someone there to dictate how to live a healthy life. As a second-generation African-American female cardiologist, I am able to bring many facets of my personality to the exam room.
The effect of diversity in background is important even beyond individual patient-doctor interactions. These same physicians can go on to fight for change in access to healthcare, delivery of medicine, and research in forgotten or ignored diseases because of a vested interest or personal connection given their unique backgrounds. For example, the recent creative approach to blood pressure management in barbershops is just one example.
I strongly believe that change in healthcare diversity cannot happen if we stay quiet. We need to speak out about the ever-pressing need. The wonderful part about bringing new minds to the table is new ideas to help innovate and advance medicine. This progress cannot happen if voices remain unheard. Let’s take advantage of diversity and continue to grow as a profession by embracing our differences.
Personally, I did not meet many people along my training path that looked like me. I would love for others like me to not have to share the same experience. A diverse physician workforce can provide new mentors for the next generation. It’s hard to dream about a life that you don’t see represented. We all need a seat at the table to truly push medicine to new forefronts.
Fola Babatunde, MD is a General Cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente. She graduated from Harvard Medical School, completed her residency at Duke University Medical Center, and completed a cardiology fellowship at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Babatunde is a 2018–19 Doximity Author.