Diversity among health-care providers is linked with greater access to care, satisfaction and choice for minority patients, yet racial and ethnic minorities account for few of the nation's doctors, nurses, dentists and psychologists, according to a report released in February by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

To help counter this disparity, the report--"In the Nation's Compelling Interest: Ensuring Diversity in the Health Care Workforce"--calls for changes in health education admission policies, financial support, training and professional accreditation that would increase diversity among health professionals.

The report suggests that academic institutions and their accreditation bodies join with health-care providers, policy-makers and community representatives to promote and create a more diverse nation that better serves minority patients, says psychologist Brian Smedley, PhD. Smedley is the IOM study director of the task force--composed of physicians, nurses, dentists and a psychologist, Ena Vazquez-Nuttall, EdD--who wrote the report.

The report encourages health educators and administrators to promote research on diversity's advancement and benefits as well as encourage accreditation bodies and federal and state financial sources to adopt policies that spark greater diversity.

Accreditation, in particular, can be an effective way to diversify the health-care workforce, Smedley says.

"We want to encourage accreditation bodies to develop explicit policies that would encourage schools to recruit minority applicants and develop an institutional climate that encourages and sustains diversity," Smedley says.

Indeed, APA's Committee on Accreditation--which accredits psychology training programs nationwide--served as a model to the IOM task force, Smedley notes, since APA already encourages institutions to develop plans to achieve diversity, develop cultural competence curricula and continually evaluate their diversity efforts.

A call for action

Specifically, the report calls on institutions to help promote diversity by:

  • Improving admission policies and practices, such as by establishing policies on the importance of culturally competent care and including minorities on admissions committees.

  • Developing objectives to show community members the benefits of increasing diversity among health professionals and keeping them informed on the progress of diversity efforts.

  • Improving the institutional climate for diversity, such as by training students, staff and faculty on their institution's diversity-related policies and the importance of diversity.

Also, the report encourages federal and state agencies to help reduce financial barriers to training for minorities, such as through loan forgiveness, loan repayment, tuition reimbursement and the like.

Making a difference

Already putting some of these recommendations into action is psychologist and report co-author Vazquez-Nuttall, assistant dean for multicultural education at Northeastern University in Boston. She has worked with the Massachusetts Psychological Association (MPA) Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs to coordinate working groups that prepare MPA members to train and mentor minority students.

Such efforts are crucial to building a health-care system that is more inclusive, Vazquez-Nuttall says. The need is evident: The recent IOM report found that minority patients are more likely to choose health-care professionals from their own ethnic groups. For example, in California, African-American physicians were five times more likely than white physicians to practice in mostly African-American communities.

Similarly, more than 40 percent of Hispanic patients said that a doctor's ability to speak their language was a major consideration for them in choosing a physician; while Latinos comprise 12 percent of the population, only about 3 percent of Latinos are psychologists or physicians.

As such, Vazquez-Nuttall hopes the report will help all health professionals--not just minorities--gain greater cultural competence that will lead to better health care for minority patients.

"We have tremendous disparities in health care, not just for minorities, but for elderly and poor patients, too," Vazquez-Nuttall says. "This report points to ways of achieving equality."

Further Reading

To obtain a copy of the report, visit www.nap.edu.