The State of Diversity in the Health Professions a Century After Flexner

Much must be changed to increase diversity in health care professions, according to this article by advocates Dr. Louis Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and chair of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions, and Ilana Suez Mittmann, Ph.D., director of health policy research at the Sullivan Alliance.

The 1910 Flexner Report prompted reform of medical education but resulted in most predominantly Black medical schools closing and shaped health care professions in ways that still make it difficult for minorities to enter. A century after Flexner, the U.S. is a nation unable to train and retain a medical workforce that reflects its increasing diversity.

Key Findings:

  • Flexner suggested the practice of a Black doctor should be “limited to his own race” so he could protect Whites from public health dangers associated with Blacks. Today, our arguments assert minority professionals are needed to treat underserved communities because research shows they are more effective than non-minorities. But, according to Sullivan and Mittman, while public service is laudable, this contemporary argument limits the personal opportunities, as well as benefits to the nation, of minority professionals.
  • Flexner also put the country on the path of evidence-based medicine, setting up a system of professional performance standards that highly values research but undervalues teaching, patient care and health promotion, precisely the areas where minorities are encouraged.
  • Despite many private and government diversity programs, minorities are still “vastly underrepresented” in medicine. Louis and Mittmann believe there must be better coordination between programs; sharper efforts to eliminate education disadvantages at every level; career mentoring; and more minority teachers and administrators at medical schools.

With the U.S. facing an impending shortage of medical professionals, the nation cannot afford to limit the value of its human capital.