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Study: Ethnically Diverse Medical Schools Pay Cultural Dividends

By Phil Mattingly and Lydia Gensheimer, CQ Staff

September 15, 2008 -- Students who attend more ethnically diverse medical schools are better prepared to work with a diverse group of patients, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Led by Dr. Somnath Saha of the Portland VA Medical Center, a group of researchers defined diversity in the study based on the degree to which medical schools promote interaction between races and the total proportion of minority students at each school.

The researchers found that students who attended classes at the most racially diverse schools felt they were the most comfortable dealing with a diverse patient population after graduation. Researchers also found that the rate of students who felt comfortable increased when their school made a concerted effort to promote interracial interaction.

"We were trying to see—does diversity matter in the way that people speculate it does?" said Saha, who conducted the study. "And we found that it did. The diversity hypothesis did hold true."

Researchers found that 61 percent of students attending schools classified by the study as diverse felt they were prepared to handle diverse patient populations. Just under 54 percent of students from schools lacking diversity felt the same way.

Saha said students at more diverse schools also were more likely to view access to health care as a fundamental right.

"There was a question about whether all people are entitled to health care, and what we saw was that fewer than half of students nationwide strongly agreed with that statement," Saha said. "Students at more diverse schools, though, were more likely to believe that access to care was a fundamental right."

Saha said that in conducting the study, he and his colleagues were attempting to determine whether attention paid to race and ethnicity in admitting students to medical schools is justified.

"Race-conscious policies and programs have been used to achieve racial diversity, and particularly to increase the numbers of black, Latino, and Native American individuals who are underrepresented in the physician workforce," researchers write in the introduction of the study. "In recent years, however, these policies have come under increasing scrutiny as being unnecessary and discriminatory."

The study is prime evidence of the need for diversity in medical schools throughout the country, researchers argued.

"I think the study offers empirical evidence to support education policy perspectives that we've educated for a very long time about the importance of diversity," said Charles Terrell, chief diversity officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administered the questionnaire used in the study. "I think it also continually supports the Supreme Court's advocacy for diversity."

The study was conducted from the compiled surveys of more than 20,000 graduating medical students from 118 medical schools over 2003 and 2004. Minority students were placed in two categories: those that are underrepresented in the field such as blacks, Native Indians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans, and those minorities that are well-represented, primarily Asians and Southeast Asians.

The study also excluded data from historically black and Puerto Rican medical schools due to the skewed diversity that occurs when minority groups comprise the majority of students.

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