Life expectancy improves for Black people who live near Black doctors, new study finds
Advocates working to address racial health disparities say a new study about Black physicians is a groundbreaking wake-up call.
The study finds that Black people who live in counties with more Black primary care doctors live longer. The research, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helps make the case that diversity in medicine matters.
Researchers found life expectancy increased by about one month for every 10% increase in Black primary care physicians.
The study looked at the entire population of these areas. The whole population living one month longer than people otherwise would is significant, says Usha Lee McFarling, a national science correspondent fo STAT.
Researchers also found death of all causes were reduced in Black populations with more Black physicians, McFarling says.
“The discrepancies in how long people live between Black and white people in counties was reduced,” she says. “So the health of Black populations really improved on a number of levels when there were more Black physicians available.”
At the onset of the study, researchers wanted to look at the more than 3,100 counties in the U.S. — but they had to exclude half for not having any Black physicians, McFarling says.
Black doctors — who are more likely to see the poorest, sickest patients such as people on Medicaid — aren’t superheroes, but their presence in a county helps improve outcomes, she says.
“Maybe a county that supports Black doctors — where they can work and thrive — supports Black lives in general. Maybe those doctors are advocating more doing more health in the community,” McFarling says. “One thing that was really clear: the counties with more poverty had greater life expectancy with Black doctors.”
Only 6% of doctors in the U.S. are Black, she says, compared to the 13.6% of the population that’s Black.
This disparity goes back for decades: Doctors were largely white men, then many white women as well as Asian men and women started becoming physicians. But few doctors exist among Black, Latino and Indigenous populations.
The results of the study surprised some folks on social media — but not among the Black community.
Researchers know there aren’t enough Black doctors and about the massive health disparities in the Black population — but something did surprise the team, she says.
“I think they were shocked that the presence of even just a handful of Black physicians in a county could help health on an entire population level,” McFarling says. “I think that’s what really raised eyebrows and said we have to just double and triple and quadruple our efforts to get more diversity within medicine.”
Many people in the health equity world are saying it’s time to stop studying and take action to address the problem of diversity in medicine. Medical schools are working to increase diversity in their classes — but since it takes more than a decade to train a doctor, change won’t come overnight, McFarling says.
“What people are worried about is an upcoming Supreme Court ruling that may rule out the ability to use race as a factor in admissions in medical schools and universities,” she says. “And that could really set this even further back.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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