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Medical Students Value Diverse Environment

Science & Spirit magazine September 2003

While diversity issues, from affirmative action to bilingual education, have garnered plenty of attention over the past several months, they have recently registered on the monitors in a different arena: medical school.

A survey conducted at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, the first such study to examine the attitudes of medical students themselves, overwhelmingly indicated diversity was a critical factor in their education.

Eighty-four percent of students polled believed diversity improved class discussions, leading to increased consideration of alternative viewpoints. Students also indicated a diverse student body was part of their selection criteria for medical school and they appreciated being part of such a community. These findings held true for both underrepresented minority students and those in the majority.

“These students understand that ours is a diverse society and recognize that their ability to relate to their patients is critical to their success as a physician,” says Joan Reede, HMS dean of diversity and community partnership, and co-author of the study. “If you can’t communicate and if you don’t have a respect for and understanding of differences in the patient that’s coming to you I don’t think you can be a good physician.”

Students can learn this “cultural competency” by interacting with fellow medical students of different races and cultures, Reede said. “As they eat together, go to movies together, and study together, students learn how to have conversations across cultures,” she said. “You learn about differences but also about similarities, and you start to build the foundation to break down some of the stereotypes.”

But the lack of minorities practicing professionally is a chronic problem. While ethnic minorities represent nearly twenty-six percent of the country’s population, just six percent of practicing physicians are black, Latino, or Native American, according to the Web site of Community Catalyst, a non-profit organization that recently dedicated a $1.2 million grant to physician diversity projects in Boston and New York.

“There is no quick fix,” says Reede. “It’s a collaboration, you have to be persistent.”

Reede has worked with community members to prepare young people of all backgrounds to consider careers in medicine since the early 1990s. And she has found numerous hurdles for minorities to clear in entering medical school, including the challenging academic and financial requirements and the complexity of the application process. HMS sponsors skills sessions for high school students and college students, geared to help ease the barriers to entry, but Reede sees the problem existing on a larger scale.

“We have a country that is becoming more diverse and we have to embrace everyone,” says Reede. “It’s not just an issue of being nice; I think there is a moral reason for it; I think there is a business reason for it; I think there is an education reason for it.”

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