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The evidence is clear: Having a diverse health care workforce can have an impact on patient care.

Research suggests that some patients treated by female physicians have lower mortality and hospital readmission rates and that black men who are treated by black doctors are more likely to receive more preventive services than their peers treated by doctors who aren’t black. But there are still big challenges to recruiting and retaining a diverse health care workforce, a panel of experts said Tuesday at the Atlantic Pulse Summit on Health Care in Boston.

“The people giving care in America don’t look very much like America,” said Dr. Esther Choo, a physician and founding member of Time’s Up Healthcare. The initiative, launched in February, aims to tackle discrimination, harassment, and inequality in the health care industry.


Choo pointed to a landmark 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which found that sexual harassment takes a significant toll on women in science and medicine. In one survey conducted for the report, nearly half of female medical students said they had been harassed by faculty or staff.

But harassment isn’t the only issue that needs to be addressed, the experts said. Health care providers of color say they’ve been targets of bias and racism among both their peers and their patients. Research shows that women physicians earn less than their male peers. One study even found that people with mustaches outnumber women as leaders of U.S. medical departments.


“There’s a safety gap and a dignity gap and a pay gap and an opportunity gap,” Choo said.  The experts said that addressing those gaps is critical to diversifying the health care workforce — and in turn, improving patient care.

“Often times, when we look for solutions, we look for solutions in silos,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, the president-elect of the American Medical Association.

The experts said that closing the gaps in the health care workforce will require a range of steps, from implicit bias training and institutional assessments of harassment to better education for medical students. Dr. Damon Tweedy, a Duke medical school professor and author, said that medical schools have historically been averse to talking about race and social factors that can influence health, such as housing insecurity and poverty.

“Students get this sense of what’s important to learn and what’s not,” Tweedy said.

Choo said she’s encouraged by the growing attention to discrimination and inequity in health care. Another positive sign: The National Academies announced on Tuesday that women accounted for an historic 40% of its newly elected members, the highest number to join the academy’s ranks ever in a given year.