Last month, the U.S. celebrated and honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the country’s Civil Rights movement. Dr. King is rightly remembered for his work on voting rights, education, and desegregation. However, Dr. King is also a leading figure in early healthcare reform, which he saw as the most “shocking” and “inhumane” injustice of his time.

Despite more than 50 years since Dr. King’s death, there is still work needed to overcome the inequities of race in healthcare. This Black History Month, we take a look at the consequences of this discrimination and make the case for diversifying healthcare workforces as a step toward progress.


Race and Healthcare: Barriers to Quality Care

As of 2020, the average life expectancy at birth for white Americans was six years longer than that of black Americans, a gap that is nearly two years shorter than it was just the year before in 2019. Undoubtedly access to healthcare remains a barrier, but so does the quality of care for black Americans who do have access.

A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation observing insurance rates of Americans from 2010-2019 found that the uninsurance rate of black Americans is just under 4% higher than white Americans. However, another study from KFF also found that despite coverage, when it comes to quality of access and use, black people fare significantly worse than white people.

Beyond the larger systemic racial factors that lead to social determinates of health, more likely to benefit white people and negatively affect people of color, studies show that black people are more likely to receive poorer quality of care than white people. A study of 400 hospitals found that of patients with heart disease black patients were more likely to receive proper prescriptions or more conservative medical treatments, were less likely to be referred for surgery, and were discharged earlier than white patients.


The Need for a Diversified Workforce

One proven way to overcome disparities in care is through diversifying the healthcare workforce. Healthcare workers that reflect the populations they serve are shown to better relate to patients (especially where that relation happens culturally) and reduce negative health outcomes related to disparities. Additionally, efforts are being made to implement cultural competency into medical school curriculums as a way to expand cultural self-awareness and how it affects patient care and outcomes.

Beyond a culturally competent approach to curriculum, the importance of international medical students and graduates to diversifying the healthcare workforce cannot go unstated. A 2017 study found that patients seen by foreign-trained physicians led to better outcomes both for the patients and the hospitals in which they work. The leading data referenced in the study show that patients seen by foreign-trained physicians had lower death rates (11.2% vs 11.6%) while readmission rates between foreign-trained and U.S.-trained physicians were the same. This equates to a similar cost of care to the hospital.

While the messages shared on Martin Luther King Jr. Day echo into Black History Month, it is critical to continue progressing against the disparities that still exist in medicine. As the diversity of the U.S. population continues to diversify, healthcare workforces that reflect that population will be increasingly important to successful patient outcomes.