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Why Diversity Matters in the Health Professions

Increasing diversity among health professionals improves access to health care for everyone

Diversity in the health professions is paramount to the nation’s need to eliminate inequities in the quality and availability of health care for underserved populations. “Increasing racial and ethnic diversity among health professionals is important because evidence indicates that among other benefits, it is associated with improved access to health care for racial and ethnic minority patients, greater patient choice and satisfaction, and better educational experiences for health professions students.”1

Among the key players in increasing diversity are the institutions that educate health professionals, health professions associations,  and individuals who contribute to high quality, culturally competent health care initiatives and programs.

Two landmark initiatives commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2004 (an Institute of Medicine panel and the Sullivan Commission) documented the need to address the diversity challenge: In the Nation’s Compelling Interest: Ensuring Diversity in the Health Care Workforce, 2 by the Institute of Medicine, and Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions,3 by the Sullivan Commission. Both studies provide directions and strategies to increase diversity within the health professions. The Sullivan Commission’s report stated: “The fact that the nation’s health professions have not kept pace with changing demographics may be an even greater cause of disparities in health access and outcomes than the persistent lack of health insurance for tens of millions of Americans.”4

Both reports concur that accrediting health professions institutions and programs play a vital role in leveraging progress.

The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), both based in Washington, DC, are two organizations that are leaders in diversity initiatives in higher education. Dr. Jeanne C. Sinkford, ADEA’s Associate Executive Director and Director for the Center for Equity and Diversity, served on the Sullivan Commission. Following are a few of the many diversity initiatives both organizations have implemented to increase diversity in dentistry and medicine.

Best Practice Models in Diversity

The ADEA Minority Dental Faculty Development Program, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was created to recruit underrepresented minority and low-income senior predoctoral and postdoctoral students and junior faculty into faculty positions. This program was administered by ADEA from 2004 to 2009.

The ADEA/W.K. Kellogg Foundation Access to Dental Careers grant funding supported the recruitment component of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pipeline, Profession, and Practice: Community-Based Dental Education program. The California Endowment has provided funding for five of the 15 schools that are now included in this project.

ADEA participates in the Health Professionals for Diversity (HPD) Coalition, which is comprised of more than 50 health organizations across the health professions disciplines. The Coalition was reactivated by AAMC in response to the U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding affirmative action decisions resulting from challenges to the University of Michigan. The Coalition addresses opportunities and challenges to promoting diversity in the post-decisions environment and building support for diversity across the health professions.

ADEA publishes Opportunities for Minority Students in U.S. Dental Schools, the only biennial publication designed to attract minority students to careers in dentistry. This unique resource guide contains information of interest to minority students in all U.S. dental schools.

The ADEA Admissions Committee Workshop is a half-day interactive workshop conducted at the invitation of dental schools seeking to admit and enroll predoctoral, postdoctoral, and allied dental students from diverse backgrounds. Nearly all dental schools that have hosted the workshop have implemented new strategies resulting in significant increases in enrollment of underrepresented minority students.

And of course, ADEA administers EHC’s mission is to help solve two urgent problems in American health care: the under-representation of minorities in the workforce, and the lack of health professionals in medically underserved communities. "ADEA is pleased to support EHC as a valuable resource for access to careers across the health professions. EHC is intended to help expand the pool of students that will pursue health careers in the future,” stated Dr. Sandra Andrieu, ADEA President.  

Like ADEA, the AAMC has worked for more than four decades to increase diversity in medical education and to advance health care equity in the United States. AAMC efforts focus on three general areas: diversifying the applicant pool, serving applicants and medical students, and supporting medical school faculty and administration.  

A few of AAMC’s initiatives include the Holistic Review Project that develops tools and resources medical schools can use to create and sustain medical student diversity and the Herbert W. Nickens Award, which continues to advance Dr. Nickens’ concerns about the educational, societal, and health care needs of minorities.

AAMC and ADEA collaborate on the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), formerly known as the Minority Medical Education Program. This program provides a free, six-week academic enrichment program for freshmen and sophomore college students. From 2006 to 2009, 3,833 students participated and to date, 267 SMDEP alumni are enrolled in medical school and 121 in dental school.

Many other programs exist throughout the United States to promote diversity in the health professions. For more information and additional resources, see the Diversity Matters section on ExploreHealthCareers.

Why Diversity Matters

A diverse body of students in health professions schools today will ensure a stronger and more diverse health workforce tomorrow. ADEA’s Dr. Sinkford says, “Diversity does matter and is evolving. It is a passion and commitment and involves revising your thinking and the energy you have to put into the various initiatives.” Dr. Marc Nivet, AAMC’s Chief Diversity Officer, adds, This is a defining moment for health and wellness in America. The combined forces of health reform, demographic shifts, continued economic woes and the projected worsening of physician shortages portend major upheaval for the health care enterprise in the near future."

What can future health care professionals do to advance diversity and inclusion?

Dr. Nivet says, “I would encourage all future health professionals to read at least two newspapers a day—one should be from their local community, because most change begins small but we often overlook how multiple small acts of positive effort can influence transformative change.  Specific to diversity and inclusion efforts, they should always speak up and act whenever they see inequity in any form.” Dr. Sinkford agrees and adds: “Major outcomes have come out of the Sullivan Commission report. And there is still work to do among individuals, organizations, accrediting bodies, and the health professions. We are creating benchmarks along the way to measure success and progress – but progress won’t occur unless everyone is involved in our workforce challenges.”

  1. Perez T, Hattis P, Barnett K. Health Professions Accreditation and Diversity: A Review of Current Standards and Processes. W.K. Kellogg Foundation, May 2007.
  2. Institute of Medicine. In the Nation’s Compelling Interest: Ensuring Diversity in the Health Care Workforce. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2004.
  3. Sullivan Commission. Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions. Washington, DC: 2004.