Healthcare is, by definition, a person-focused industry. After all, a healthcare worker’s job is to help people through some of the most important moments of their life, from birth to death, from illness and injury to recovery. It is, in other words, a universal endeavor, packed with the eternal and timeless moments that comprise the human experience, no matter who you are or where you may be.
Yet, for all its universality, the healthcare community has been far too homogeneous, its practitioners rarely reflecting the diversity of the patient populations they serve. That’s a concern, because lack of diversity can not only significantly compromise patient care but it can also curtail opportunities for diverse healthcare providers today and into the future.
One particularly dire effect of the lack of diversity in the healthcare community is the ease with which “diverse” populations, including women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community may become “lost” in the system.
For instance, indigenous populations tend to suffer disproportionately from the lack of access to consistent and high-quality healthcare. And yet the consequences of this lack of healthcare access remain little understood due to the woeful underrepresentation of indigenous populations in medical research.
This has created, for example, significant health disparities within marginalized groups, such as the Hawaiian and Pacific Islander patient populations. Without a sufficient understanding of the specific needs of discrete patient populations, marginalized groups not only suffer from a lack of healthcare access but also from the increased risk of misdiagnosis and improper treatment.
Minding the (Gender) Gap
The lack of diversity in the healthcare community isn’t just taking its toll on minority and indigenous populations.
Studies show that female patients, regardless of ethnicity, are at a significantly higher risk of being misdiagnosed, experiencing improper or ineffective treatment, and enduring delayed diagnoses, often due to the subconscious gender biases that continue to inform healthcare.
These biases, indeed, appear not only to impact patients, but also practitioners, which serves to more deeply entrench these inequities in the system. For example, female physicians’ assistants (PA) continue to be paid less than their male counterparts.
Such pay inequities only serve to perpetuate the dearth of women at the highest echelons of the medical field. With fewer female healthcare providers, the scope of perspectives and experiences so conducive to the effective practice of medicine narrows.
Indeed, the relatively low number of women serving as doctors and PAs may well account, at least in part, for the disproportionate numbers of inaccurate or delayed diagnoses affecting female patients.
Rural and Low-Income Patient Populations
Patients who are at the lower end of the socio-economic stratum, particularly those who live in rural areas, are also more likely to be negatively impacted by the lack of diversity in healthcare.
For instance, healthcare providers from more affluent middle and upper-class backgrounds may be unable to identify or understand the unique health challenges that rural and impoverished persons often face.
Not only may these patients lack the transportation needed to travel often long distances for medical care — they may also be unable to adhere to clinicians’ recommendations and treatment plans. It will do little good, for example, if a physician instructs a diabetic patient to adhere to a renal diet when the patient has neither the money for nor access to the foods prescribed by this regimen.
These social determinants of health have a profound impact on patient care and outcomes, especially for marginalized patient populations, and are factors that are rarely discussed in medical schools. Healthcare providers who hail from diverse cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, however, can often offer a more nuanced, comprehensive, and actionable perspective on the effective care of rural and low-income patients.
Diversity in the healthcare community is not simply a laudable talking point — it is a necessity if the healthcare system is to resolve the many inequities and disparities that still plague the system today. Increasing diversity within the healthcare community will not only enhance the quality of care for patients, but it will also open up immense opportunities for future generations of healthcare providers representing a wide array of perspectives and experiences across all walks of life.
Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, activism-related content. When she isn’t writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.