When given the opportunity, you should consider choosing a physician that looks like you. Having a physician with a similar ethnic or racial background is especially important for those in marginalized communities. Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of people of color in the health care community, which makes it more difficult for some groups to find physicians than others. For example, Black men comprise less than 3% of doctors today — yet, the difference that is made in a Black man’s life when another Black man is his primary physician is remarkable.
Several studies support the idea that seeing a physician of a similar racial or ethnic background can make a difference for patients. Marcella Alsan is well known for her work to encourage more men within the Black community to pursue careers in the medical field. Through the research that she has conducted, she has found that when Black men receive medical care from physicians who also identify as Black men, they are more likely to take preventative health care measures. Not only this, but they are also more likely to accept exams that require a significant amount of trust in your physician.
On the surface, this may seem like a small matter. However, if more Black men were to seek care from physicians that looked like them, the effects would be far-reaching and significantly change trends associated with the health of Black men overall. Alsan’s team found that if more preventative screenings were done on Black men, the mortality gap that exists between them and their white counterparts would close by up to 8%.
Outside of Alsan’s study, another study found that people who identify as Asian and Hispanic are also more likely to seek out preventative care when treated by a doctor who identifies with the same ethnicity. Given the significance of preventative care and how likely patients are to pursue it when treated by physicians with the same ethnic background, having a physician with a similar identity can be the difference between living healthier and dying early. Along with the preventative health care measures that people are more likely to seek out, another study found that people are more likely to be satisfied with their overall care when treated by a doctor who looks like them.
A large part of health care depends on the trust in the physician that you are seeing. While this is something that can be obtained with any quality doctor that genuinely cares for the health of their patient, the trust that comes about when your doctor is of the same racial or ethnic background is different. This is in part due to the fact that there is a shared identity. While the power of a shared identity does not outweigh the quality of the doctor themselves, it does make a difference when you are in a position to choose between doctors that are equally qualified.
For the patient, a shared identity can mean that there is trust that the doctor has an intimate knowledge of the health care problems that affect people within their specific community. Alsan’s study is an amazing example of this. It is no coincidence that Black men seek preventative health care when they are treated by Black male doctors. These doctors have an intimate understanding of the issues that affect the Black community and more specifically Black men by virtue of their identity. With this knowledge, they are able to encourage their patients to take preventative measures that may not immediately come to mind for a doctor who is not a part of the Black community.
None of this is to say that a doctor who does not identify with the same racial or ethnic background as their patient is inadequate or extremely damaging in any way. All doctors are capable of extreme harm as well as extreme good. However, there is a level of intimacy that exists between a doctor and a patient with a shared identity that cannot be replicated.
Any question as to why there may be a lack of trust between a patient and a doctor of a different racial or ethnic background can be answered after examining the recent history of minority groups and their interactions with the American health care system.
From 1932 to 1975, doctors carried out the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. When the experiments began, around 600 Black men were manipulated into being the subjects for a study on the effects of syphilis if it goes untreated. The men were entirely unaware of the experiment and had not given consent to be a part of it. Rather, they were told that they were being treated for “bad blood,” an ambiguous term that was used to describe a variety of illnesses at the time.
Events such as this permeate American history and have rightfully created an overall mistrust of the health care system in the Black community. For another example, Mexican women have faced forced sterilization at different points in U.S. history. In 1975, 10 Mexican women filed a class-action lawsuit after being sterilized without their consent. The women were victims of a larger trend in California that allowed the sterilization of people who were not deemed mentally “fit.” Mexican women were disproportionately affected by this and the issue is still alive and well. Among the atrocities committed last year, it came out that Latina women were being forcibly sterilized at U.S detention centers.
Each of these instances further demonstrates that within America, people that are part of non-white communities are rarely respected as people at all. The damage that has been inflicted on minority groups by the American health care system is irreparable and puts the findings of Aslan’s research in context. Because so many cases like these have sown a distrust of the American health care system in minority communities, it makes sense that better health outcomes would come from minorities seeing doctors that are also minorities. When this happens, the patient may feel less anxiety that they are being manipulated or mistreated by their provider. The relief that these patient-doctor dynamics can provide is important and necessary to the health of marginalized communities.