In striking down affirmative action last week, Chief Justice Roberts stated of race-based college admission practices: “Those policies fly in the face of our colorblind Constitution.” This decision will also affect medical school admissions and thus the demographics of the U.S. physician workforce in the future. Affirmative action was created to overcome disparities caused by racial discrimination but the Supreme Court has determined that affirmative action itself is discriminatory.
- There are significant racial disparities in the U.S. physician workforce resulting from racial discrimination in the U.S. decades ago and from the racial demographics of our foreign medical graduates
- To overcome those disparities, U.S. medical schools have relied on affirmative action
- The Supreme Court has recently ruled that affirmative action is itself discriminatory
- Simultaneously, the U.S. Senate is proposing to increase the number of Medicare-funded residency positions by 14,000
- These new residency positions will largely be filled by foreign medical graduates
- The combination of residency position expansion and affirmative action elimination will likely worsen racial disparities in the U.S. physician workforce
For years, medicine has embraced efforts to improve diversity. Our medical schools strive to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in admissions. Our deans take pride in publicly stating that “This class is the most diverse that we have ever had.” Our hospital leadership search committees are directed to include increasing diversity as a criteria when identifying job candidates. We champion implicit bias training in our medical centers. Even the NFL has the “Rooney Rule” that requires that league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions. However, under the sociopolitical threat of being accused of practicing critical race theory or wokeness, it is now becoming increasingly dangerous to embrace diversity. The Supreme Court decision was made specifically in regard to undergraduate college admissions but has the potential to be extrapolated to medical school admissions, hospital leadership search committees, and yes, even the NFL’s Rooney Rule.
The racial composition of the U.S. physician workforce
It has long been recognized that some racial minority groups are under-represented in the physician workforce. As physicians, we are disproportionately White and Asian. The figure below shows the percentages of the U.S. population (left) and practicing U.S. physicians (right) by race from the 2022 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The U.S. population is 59% White but 64% of U.S. physicians are White. There is an even greater discrepancy for Asians who constitute 6% of the population but 21% of U.S. physicians. On the other hand, although 19% of the population is Hispanic, only 7% of physicians are Hispanic; 14% of the population is Black but only 6% of physicians are black. 1.6% of the population is Native American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander but this group comprises only 0.4% of physicians.
The reasons for these racial disparities are complex and I’ve written in the past about my own thoughts on why there are so many Asian physicians in the U.S. The hard truth is that Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans are far less likely to become physicians than White or Asian Americans.
Race and medical student demographics
When we look at the most recent medical school admissions data from the AAMC, we see that there are notable changes in the racial demographics of our future doctors (who are currently first year medical students) compared to our current practicing doctors.
Notably, fewer of our medical students identify as being White (45%) compared to either currently practicing physicians (64%) or the U.S. population in general (59%). The percentage of medical students who identify as Hispanic (7%), Black (8%), or Asian (24%) are reasonably similar to the percentages of currently practicing physicians. However, the percentage of medical students who report being of mixed race is much higher (11%) than either that of practicing physicians (< 1%) or the U.S. population (1%). It is possible that this reflects a greater willingness of the younger generation of medical school applicants to identify as mixed race either because of greater comfort in professing to be of mixed race than previous generations or because of a perceived advantage in being mixed race when affirmative action was used as a criteria for deciding medical school admissions.
We are facing a physician shortage
Twenty five years ago, many medical economists projected that we would face a surplus of physicians in the future and recommended reducing the number of medical school admissions. Those projections have made a 180 degree turn. The AAMC now projects that by 2034, our country will face a shortage of somewhere between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians. Because completion of residency is required for medical licensure, the rate limiting factor in the number of practicing U.S. physicians is the number of residency positions in this country. Most residency positions are paid for by Medicare graduate medical education (GME) funds and consequently, Medicare determines the number of doctors entering the U.S. workforce. For many years, Congress did not increase Medicare funding for GME until 3 years ago, when Congress expanded the number of Medicare-funded residency positions by 1,200. A new bi-partisan bill proposed by Senators Bob Menendez, John Boozmen, Chuck Schumer, and Susan Collins would further increase the number of Medicare resident positions by 2,000 per year for seven years (14,000 in total). Because most residencies are 3 – 5 years in length, the net effect would be to increase the number of new practicing physicians by approximately 4,000 per year.
But where will those 4,000 new physicians come from? Unless we increase the number of U.S. medical students, these new physicians will be foreign medical graduates. Last year, U.S medical and osteopathic schools graduated 25,051 MD students and 7,303 DO students for a total of 32,354 new graduates. The majority of these new graduates then enter the National Resident Matching Program to be assigned to residency positions. Those medical school graduates who do not do residencies instead go into industry, research, or some other profession. Some medical school senior students apply to the few residency programs that do not participate in the Match. However, last year, 19,748 MD senior students and 7,436 DO senior students did apply for residency in the Match. In other words, there were a total of 27,184 US graduates of MD and DO schools applying for the 40,375 residency positions offered in the Match. Although not all U.S. medical and osteopathic school senior will match to a residency during the formal Match, most of those who do not get a residency position in the Match will get a position during the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP) when unfilled residency programs seek out unmatched U.S. senior students. The bottom line is just about every U.S. MD or DO graduate who wants a residency position can get one (although it may not be their top choice).
The United States has long depended on international medical graduates to fill our physician workforce. Currently, 25% of licensed U.S. doctors attended a medical school outside of the U.S. Because there are more residency positions than U.S. medical and osteopathic school graduates, we depend on foreign medical graduates to fill our residency positions. Last year, 5,032 non-U.S. citizen foreign medical graduates matched to first year residency positions. In addition, 3,356 U.S. citizens attending international medical schools matched to residency positions. Since there is currently no surplus of U.S. MD and DO graduates to fill the 14,000 residency positions that the Senate proposes to increase, these positions will by necessity have to be filled by international medical school graduates.
So, where will all of these new foreign medical graduates come from? The most recent data indicates that 23% of foreign medical graduates in the United States come from India, 18% from the Caribbean, 6% from Pakistan, 6% from the Philippines, and 5% from Mexico. The remainder (52%) come from a wide variety of countries. Because Asian countries have the largest number of medical schools, we can expect that in the future, a disproportionately large percentage of foreign medical graduates entering U.S. residencies will continue to be Asian and a disproportionately small percentage will be Black or Hispanic. For example, India has 304 medical schools, China has 147, and Pakistan 86. On the other hand, there are only 143 medical schools on the entire continent of Africa (54 countries).
The implication is that in the future, as the number of residency positions increases, unless we increase the number of graduates from U.S. medical and osteopathic schools, we will likely see even wider racial disparities in the U.S. physician workforce due to the racial demographics of foreign medical graduates who apply to U.S. residency positions. It is incredibly expensive to build new medical schools – most are constructed using state government funding and few states are currently able (or willing) to pay for them. It is not just the cost of the physical buildings but also the cost of the faculty salaries for years 1 & 2 and the challenge in finding enough clinical preceptors for years 3 & 4. Consequently, it is unlikely that the proposed increase in Medicare-funded GME positions will be accompanied by a proportionate increase in the number of U.S. medical students, at least in the near future.
To improve physician racial disparities, start in kindergarten
Stating that college (and medical school) admissions should be colorblind turns a blind eye on racial disparities that exist during the 13 years of education before a high school senior applies to college. With public education supported by property taxes, poorer communities have less money for schools. This is amplified when state governments re-direct money for public education to pay for private schools and charter schools. Add in crime, gang violence, poverty, teenage pregnancy, and insecure housing in many communities with high percentages of Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans, and it is not surprising that high school seniors from these communities are at a competitive disadvantage when applying to college and medical school compared to those from more affluent communities.
To level the playing field for those coming from those communities, we must level the educational playing field starting in elementary school. That means ensuring that all American children have access to high quality education in our public schools. It means that a college degree needs to be affordable to all qualified applicants and not just those whose parents can afford the cost of tuition. It means increasing scholarships for low income high school seniors applying to college. It means improving financial literacy for students seeking educational loans and financial aid. It means that any American child should be able to have the audacity to dream of becoming a physician if they are smart enough and willing to work hard enough, regardless of their race or the neighborhood they grow up in.
Ask a room full of doctors how they came to choose a speciality and the majority will tell you that they were influenced by an admired mentor who served as a role model. Doctors live in affluent neighborhoods and serve as career role models for the children that live in those neighborhoods. Those doctors attend the neighborhood churches/synagogues/mosques/temples and the children of those doctors attend the neighborhood schools. One of our challenges in the United States is that Black, Hispanic, and Native American children often do not live in affluent neighborhoods and often lack physician role models. I don’t pretend to know how to fix this but it is a major barrier to overcoming the racial demographic disparities among practicing U.S. physicians.
In an ideal world, I would agree with Chief Justice Roberts that college and medical school admissions should be colorblind. The problem is that the U.S. educational system before getting to college and medical school is not colorblind. Eliminating affirmative action does nothing to address the root cause of racial disparities in the U.S. physician workforce. Indeed, it may make these disparities worse.
Discrimination versus disparity
Although similar, there are important differences between the terms discrimination and disparity. Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, particularly on the grounds of race, ethnicity, age, sex, or disability. Disparity is a lack of similarity or equality, particularly with respect to race, ethnicity, age, sex, or disability. Discrimination usually results in immediate disparity but disparity does not always result from discrimination and when it does, it can be from historical discrimination decades or even generations previously.
Disparities in U.S. medical student demographics is the result of historical racial discrimination in our country. However, disparities in our foreign medical graduate demographics is not a result of racial discrimination in our country but rather a result of where the world’s non-U.S. medical schools are located. These two disparities combine to cause the current racial disparities in the U.S. physician workforce.
Now that the Supreme Court has determined that affirmative action is itself discriminatory, we will have to find other ways to overcome the glaring racial disparities within the medical profession.
July 3, 2023