NEWS | Volume 21 | Spring 2005
Health Care Workforce Needs Better Diversification, Say Panelists at Annual Hinton Lecture
Introducing her were former Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, Christine Ferguson, and HSPH Dean, Barry Bloom. Ferguson said that diversity in the workplace should not be viewed as separate from the problem of health disparities in the United States. “They are tied and intertwined,” she said. “In order to address health care disparities, we have to look at workforce diversity.” Effective March 1, Ferguson resigned her position to join America’s Promise, a nonprofit children’s policy and advocacy organization founded by General Colin Powell.
Demographers predict that more than half the United States population will be made of people of color by mid-21st century, yet the nation’s medical, dental, and nursing schools do not come close to recruiting the faculty and students necessary to reflect that diversity, Reede said. Nursing schools do better than dental and medical schools in terms of increasing diversity among student populations and faculty, she said.
Those already working in health professions may be subject to discrimination and lack of opportunity, in spite of efforts by many institutions to increase equity in classrooms and workplaces. In one study described by Reede, 61 percent of minority medical residents reported experiencing racial or ethnic discrimination.
“Cumulative disadvantages travel with you all through school and career,” she said.
Reede received this year’s Hinton Award for her efforts to recruit and prepare minority students for jobs in the biomedical professions and to promote better health care policies to benefit minorities. Hinton was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical School, where he later served as Clinical Professor of Bacteriology and Immunology. In the 1920s, he developed the widely used Hinton Test for the diagnosis of syphilis.
Reede has developed programs in the local community to encourage children from kindergarten through high school to aspire to jobs in the biomedical professions through age-specific mentoring and enrichment opportunities.
“How do you start to engage kids?” she asked. First, provide a comfortable, supportive environment in which they can thrive. Second, mentor them, offer challenging assignments, and let other teachers and possible employers know that the mentee is a high performer.
Reede’s address was followed by a panel of health professionals who echoed many of her concerns, adding their own perspectives and experiences to a lively discussion.
Phillip Gonzalez, a director at a nonprofit advocacy organization named Community Catalyst, said their group works nationally to diversify the country’s pool of physicians. He called for local communities to demand more representation of minorities among medical school students.
Durrell Fox, project director for the New England HIV Education Consortium, pointed to the importance of including community health workers in diversification efforts. Most people who use common sense will understand the importance of diversity in clinical as well as in non-clinical health workforces, Fox said.
UMass-Boston Associate Dean of Nursing, Marion Winfrey, reported that the nursing profession holds many opportunities for minorities. “We are taking [minority nursing students] and firmly planting them in the middle class,” she said. Entry-level nursing positions pay $40-50,000 a year, so “career ladders [for minorities in nursing] are out there.”
Northeastern University’s Elmer Freeman directs a program called CHERS that encourages minority high school students to enter allied and professional health programs. In response to Boston’s need for minority, multilingual EMTs and nurses, CHERS brings together resources from Northeastern, Boston University, Boston Medical Center, and the public health community to develop a diverse local health care workforce. He works to tap funds for scholarships and to find role models for students. Following his remarks, Freeman received the Rebecca Lee Award, named for the first African-American female physician in the United States Lee graduated in 1864 from New England Medical College, a precursor to the Boston University School of Medicine.
The annual Hinton Lecture is jointly sponsored by HSPH and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
By Paula Hartman Cohen, contributing writer, Harvard School of Public Health
[Reprinted with permission from Harvard Public Health Now, April 1, 2005]