Data on Black Doctors and Value of Affirmative Action

If having more black doctors could save lives, does that change the nature of the debate over the role of race in admissions?

September 17, 2018

Much of the debate about affirmative action in admissions focuses on the value of diversity in the classroom, or on the impact of various policies on both those admitted and those who aren't.

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research isn't about affirmative action per se. But to some supporters of affirmative action, it demonstrates an important part of the debate over diversity in higher education.

The study -- by researchers at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Bridge Clinical Research -- looks at the impact of black male patients having access to black doctors. The researchers recruited black men in Oakland and set them up with appointments at a clinic, giving them a coupon for a free consultation. Some of the men were matched with black doctors and some were not. The research found that when black men dealt with black doctors, they shared more health problems and were significantly more likely to act on advice on how to prevent health problems. The impact was greatest on those black men with little experience getting regular health care, and with those who don't trust the medical system.

Increasing the number of black physicians, the paper argues, could thus have a significant impact on the health of African Americans and could substantially reduce the gaps between black and white men in cardiovascular mortality.

Nationally, medical school enrollments have become more diverse in the last 30 years, but as the share of white enrollments has dropped, Asian American enrollments have gone up substantially while gains for African Americans have been modest.

Owen Garrick of Bridge Clinical Research, one of the authors, said that the paper illustrated that increasing the number of black physicians matters because of the "meaningful benefit due to improved communication between black physicians and black patients."

Does this research change the debate over affirmative action? Much of the legal discussion centers on Supreme Court rulings that cite the educational value of having a diverse student body. And much of the political discussion focuses on the impact of various policies on applicants.

William Harvey, a distinguished scholar with the American Association for Access Equity and Diversity, noted via email that much of the support from corporate and military groups for affirmative action is based on the value of diverse graduates, not just of diverse students.

Of the new study, he said that "of course it points out the societal benefits of affirmative action, but this value extends to criminal justice reform, voter registration procedures, residential patterns, and even environmental considerations." In all of those cases, having diverse professionals produces different outcomes, he said.

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes the consideration of race in admissions, disagreed. He said that there is a cost any time that admission to medical school is not based on academic qualifications. "If less qualified individuals are admitted into medical school because they have been given a racial preference, the most obvious cost is that fewer doctors will be graduated, fewer will pass the licensing exams, and the doctors who do practice will not be as good, with bad results for patients and research."

He also said using this type of research to argue for the admission of greater numbers of black people to medical school sets up what he sees as a dangerous precedent. "If we aim for doctors who reflect the general population racially, then we should be capping the number of Asian American doctors -- since there are fewer Asian Americans in the general population than whites, blacks, or Latinos, if merits admission results in their overrepresentation, as I suspect it would," Clegg said.

"And we should cap the number of Jews if non-Jews prefer not to have Jewish doctors, and the number of doctors of non-Western religions (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.) if they are less desired by the general population of patients. All such discrimination should be rejected."


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