Impact of Race on the Professional Lives of Physicians of African Descent

Only 2 to 3 percent of practicing physicians in the United States today are of African descent. To successfully recruit, retain and support a diverse health care workforce, it is important to clearly understand the role that race plays in the professional lives of minority physicians. This study seeks to characterize how physicians of African descent experience race in the workplace.

The authors conducted interviews with 25 physicians of African descent who practiced in academic and nonacademic settings and across a diverse range of clinical specialties in New England. The interviews were conducted in person by a researcher of African descent, using a standard interview guide. The average length of the interview was 40 minutes.

The authors identified five themes that characterized how physicians of African descent experienced race in the workplace:

  1. Awareness of race permeates the experience of physicians of African descent in the health care workplace;
  2. Race-related experiences shape interpersonal interactions and define the institutional climate;
  3. Responses to perceived racism at work vary along a spectrum from minimization to confrontation;
  4. The health care workplace is often silent on issues of race; and
  5. Collective race-related experiences can result in racial fatigue, with personal and professional consequences for physicians.

Limitations of the study include the findings may not reflect the experiences of physicians outside of New England.

The authors state that their findings suggest that race plays a complex, pervasive role in the professional lives of physicians of African descent and issues of race need to be discussed in the health care workplace. If these issues are not addressed, attempts to encourage diversity among physicians are unlikely to be successful.