December 5th, 2009
09:23 AM ET

Surgeon general calls for more minority health professionals

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

This week, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the new U.S. surgeon general, joined 550 health professionals, educators, executives, community health activists, patients and politicians at Morehouse School of Medicine's third annual "National Health Disparities Conference. The goal: to "focus on how to build a better health care system for all Americans" says Morehouse spokeswoman Cherie Richardson. Most of those in attendance are aware of the problems; they've been around for a long time. One of those problems is the lack of minority physicians and nurses. In her keynote address, Benjamin noted that the percentage of minority doctors has not risen in nearly 100 years. A 2004 report on health disparities, Benjamin said, found that although 25 percent of the nation's population is minority, only 6 percent of its physicians are minority. That's the same percentage found in the Flexner report, which was published in 1910. "There's something wrong with that," the surgeon general said.

I had no idea what the Flexner report was – so I looked it up. Abraham Flexner was a research scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He undertook an assessment of medical education in North America, visiting all 155 medical schools that existed in the United States and Canada.

It's hard to disagree with the surgeon general when she says there's something wrong with that. It is hard to believe that we have the same percentage of minority doctors and nurses in this country today, in a population of 300 million people, as we had a century ago, when the population was only about 92 million.

One theory of why the disparity exists was offered by Dr. John Ruffin, who heads the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. He told the gathering: “African American, Hispanics and Native Americans make up 31 percent of college population, but only account for 14 percent of life sciences graduates.”

Benjamin challenged the attendees to do their part to encourage more minorities go back to school and become nurses and doctors. "Our nation faces a growing ethnic and racial disconnect between those who seek care and those who provide that excellent care." Having more medical professionals tending to the needs of all Americans will help the country as a whole, she argued.

Are you a minority healthcare professional? How do you think this disparity can be changed?

Filed under: Caregiving

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