Race and Medicine

Race and Medicine


Watkins AC. How can the transplant community tackle diversity issues? Presented at: ASTS Winter Symposium. Jan. 14-16, 2021 (virtual meeting).

Disclosures: Watkins reports no relevant financial disclosures.
January 15, 2021
3 min read

Speaker: ‘Timing could not be better’ to boost diversity in health care


Watkins AC. How can the transplant community tackle diversity issues? Presented at: ASTS Winter Symposium. Jan. 14-16, 2021 (virtual meeting).

Disclosures: Watkins reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Contending that diversity among health care professionals is essential to providing the highest quality of care, a speaker at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons Winter Symposium outlined challenges and strategies for improvement.

“Increasing diversity does not by itself increase effectiveness,” Anthony C. Watkins, MD, a transplant surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, said during a virtual presentation. “What matters is how an organization harnesses diversity and whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure. Fortunately, timing could not be better to make further strides, with social justice serving as a major theme in 2020, resulting in a general heightened awareness of these issues.”

Animated hands of different races linked
Source: Adobe Stock

As evidence for how diversity plays a role in better care, Watkins cited data that suggest physician-patient racial concordance can strengthen trust, thereby leading to improvements in a variety of common health disparities. According to Watkins, these include access to care, patient outcomes, higher patient satisfaction scores and improved patient compliance. The improved relationship between the physician and patient can also help to increase participation in clinical research.

“Finally, there’s growing diversity in our society; our workforce should reflect that,” Watkins said. “Otherwise, a homogenous workforce may miss the capabilities of medicine, containing it within the parameters of a single lens and a particular set of values.”

Despite evidence pointing toward the benefits of diversity, Watkins said the health care work force in the United States suffers from a lack of representation matching the general population.

As of 2018, 64% of physicians were male and 56% were white, he noted. Only 6% of physicians identified as Hispanic (although Hispanic people made up 19% of population) and only 5% of physicians identified as Black (although Black people comprised 13% of the population).

“On a brighter note, women medical school matriculants have been steadily rising since the 1980s, finally surpassing men in 2016 to 2017,” Watkins said. “Between 1970 and 2014, Asians have also made significant strides. However, for other groups, this pipeline has not been as promising.”

Here, he pointed to data that showed the percentages of Black and Hispanic medical school matriculants have been “relatively flat,” adding that it is “disturbing” that there were more Black men matriculating through medical school in 1978 than in 2014.

“As mentioned at last year’s meeting, it takes a bachelor’s degree to make a medical student, reading proficiency at age 8 [years] to make a doctor at age 28 [years], and it takes resources to make all that happen,” Watkins said. “This statement was based on data that connects literacy to future paths which underscores how early in a child’s development various socioeconomic and systemic issues come into play. While beyond our scope, the relevance of these factors cannot be overstated.”

Although the health care professional may not have the power to make these large societal changes alone, Watkins suggested a variety of “tools” that can be used to achieve diversity goals. These include the following:

  • establishment of diversity as a central priority of the organization or program;
  • identification of groups or individuals to help define specific strategies;
  • training to mitigate biases;
  • development of recruitment strategies to fill positions with diverse individuals;
  • targeted leadership development;
  • programs with sponsorship by leaders to advocate for protégés; and
  • holding people accountable for improving diversity within the organization.

“Arguably, the most critical step is providing metrics or data targets to reach in defined periods of time,” Watkins said.

Questions to be considered, according to Watkins, include: What does your organization’s diversity program look like in 2021? Where is there room for improvement? Is there diversity in leadership? What are some realistic targets and how long will it take to accomplish these goals?

“Assessing and reassessing these targets and timetables will help keep these efforts on track,” Watkins concluded. “The hope is that by creating a clear roadmap as to how we will reach our intended target, we can optimize our chance for success.”