Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Serving the Underserved: Efforts Are Underway in Congress to Amend Legislation, to Improve Diversity within the Health Professions

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Serving the Underserved: Efforts Are Underway in Congress to Amend Legislation, to Improve Diversity within the Health Professions

Article excerpt

Efforts to expand diversity in the health professions has received a boost from a prominent member of Congress. U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., recently introduced a bill to amend the Public Health Service Act as part of a comprehensive initiative to improve the health of minority and other underserved populations. This bill, which is being co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Barack Obama of Illinois and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, would include funding for the country's colleges and universities to recruit, train and retain minority students in the health professions.

The proposed amendment comes on the heels of two studies documenting the barriers colleges and universities face in advancing health career opportunities for underrepresented populations. Groundbreaking reports published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Health care Workforce examine the low levels of minority participation in these professions and provide recommendations on the role of higher education institutions in reversing the trend.

Research by several prominent health care foundations suggests that the failure in diversifying the health professions has significantly hampered the delivery of medical care to minorities. Leading experts argue that the insufficient representation of minority physicians, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists and other industry professionals are among the major factors contributing to the disparities found in patient treatment and outcomes based on race and ethnicity.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Indians, Blacks and Hispanics make up slightly more than a quarter of the U.S. population. Yet they constitute just 6 percent of practicing physicians, less than 5 percent of dentists and less than 7.5 percent of nurses. Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine, says these and other related trends were the main catalysts behind the formation of the Sullivan Commission, a group charged with examining workforce diversity in the health professions. In 2004, the commission released a report, "Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions,' which offered policy recommendations for enhancing the presence of under-represented minorities in the medical, dental, nursing and allied health fields.

"There has been a great deal of interest in this report on the part of higher education leaders throughout the nation, and we have used it to inform and challenge them in their efforts to promote diversity in the health professions," says Sullivan.

He points to the establishment of the Virginia/Nebraska Alliance, a partnership between several academic institutions to promote the advancement of diversity in the health professions. The partnership includes the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and five historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia.

"While progress has been made along many fronts, our efforts are not proceeding as fast as we had originally anticipated," says Sullivan. "Nevertheless, we are encouraged by the expanded attention being given to this critical issue and are optimistic that a tipping point will eventually be reached where we can show substantive outcomes."

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that more than half of the 30 fastest-growing jobs this decade will be in allied health profession areas. In addition, the demand for physicians will continue to grow, particularly in urban, underserved areas where there is a chronic shortage of providers. The 10th report by the Center for Health Workforce Studies, however, points to a decline in the number of minorities applying to all health profession programs. Many higher education leaders suggest that the U. …

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