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Why Affirmative Action Still Matters in Medicine. And Probably Always Will…

I am an emergency room physician who has worked at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital for 17 years. I am also the first black woman to ever be hired as  a faculty member, and thus have had the opportunity  to teach students and doctors in training.  Given that 85% of the patients of the 120,000 patients that cross our threshold annually are black, my hiring carried enormous symbolic weight.

Beyond the symbolism, I’ve found a real effect on patient care. There are a few earlier studies which suggest that patients prefer doctors who look like them if given the opportunity.

Though we can’t yet confirm that physicians and patients of the same race improve health for minorities , we can still argue that increasing diversity in the healthcare professions is a worthy goal.  We must move to a place where physicians can comfortably care for people of all cultures and patients can feel comfortable being cared for physicians from different cultures.

In my own experience, African-American grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts all want to give me a hug when they see me walk in the room to treat them or their loved ones: “Go ahead sister,” they might say, “we’re so glad and proud to see you”.   I have also had many black patients tell me they were more comfortable talking with me about their history of abuse or addiction.  That kind of rapport leads to better care and a healthier population.

If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Abigail Fisher in Fisher vs. The University of Texas today, which they did not, opportunities for physicians of color who could establish that rapport might have been significantly diminished.

To eliminate or significantly weaken affirmative action, which would have been the result of a Fisher victory, would deal a significant blow to the ability of undergraduate programs to recruit and create a diverse student population—some of whom will continue on to medical school. To be sure, that blow would weaken medical schools nationwide.

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