How can we address racial disparities in science and medicine?
Thursday, February 20, 2014
STEM — the acronym used to describe science, technology, engineering and math — is used by policymakers, universities and private foundations to allocate funding to support the sciences.
If we consider medicine to fall under "science" in the STEM categories, then why aren't the racial disparities in medical school enrollment and completion a part of the regular STEM discussion? STEM diversity is a problem for the medical community as much as it is the scientific community.
For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges report for 2012 U.S medical school enrollment shows that African-Americans represent 6.8 percent of medical graduates that year. That same year, the National Science Foundation reported that only 5 percent of African-Americans earned doctorate degrees in science and engineering.
If we consider that training for an M.D. and a Ph.D. are essentially identical through college, it seems obvious that an allegiance to improve K-12 education for underrepresented populations could be fruitful.
The sciences require more diversity as a means to generate innovation and technology for society. Reports like this one clearly argue that better patient access and culturally competent care are the products of a diverse physician workforce.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should also be interested in co-mingling diversity initiatives in the research sciences and medical programs because accurate and informative clinical trials rely on a diverse patient pool.
A history of ethical and cultural concerns in under-represented communities has made clinical trial enrollment of these populations especially challenging. This hurdle can be overcome when physicians, who are members of those same communities, are involved in clinical research because they can address cultural nuances and concerns that may otherwise go unrecognized.
Currently, only M.D./Ph.D. programs receive any support from the NIH. If more physicians were trained to participate in clinical trials, the NIH would be able to more readily translate its substantial investment in basic research to real treatment solutions for patients.
At a more granular level, what can we do to address racial and ethnic disparities in STEM together?
Outreach is imperative to expose and encourage young people in under-represented groups to the various career opportunities that an interest in STEM can lead to. Both scientists and physicians have the ability to pique the interest of young people by giving talks at elementary, middle and high schools or by allowing a student to shadow them for a day.
The earlier the exposure, the better that student can plan to be successful in STEM in high school and college so that he or she can become a scientist or a physician. A student seeing a person from his or her own community is a powerful image, and taking the time out to mentor a single student multiplies that power exponentially.
Whether the shared interests of increasing diversity in the physician workforce or the sciences are recognized by policymakers or funding institutions, we each have a social responsibility to reach back and encourage students from under-represented groups to be interested in science and medicine.
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