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Having diverse doctors saves lives, but students of color face barriers to med school

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For decades, leading medical organizations have been trying to diversify the ranks of physicians. And that matters because research has shown that people of color have better health outcomes when their doctors look like them. But a new study is highlighting factors that can keep students of color from even making it to med school. NPR's Maria Godoy reports.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Sabina Spigner says she's always known she wanted to be a doctor. But as a pre-med student at an Ivy League college, she found herself struggling to balance a heavy class load while also working as much as 20 hours a week.

SABINA SPIGNER: I was always working because I didn't have money, and I was a work-study student.

GODOY: Her grades suffered as a result. In her junior year, she turned to her pre-med adviser for help.

SPIGNER: And she was like, well, you're just not going to get into med school with that GPA, and so I think you should consider something else. And she didn't really present me with many resources or options other than just giving up.

GODOY: Last month, Spigner, who is Black and Southeast Asian American, wrote about her experiences on Twitter.

SPIGNER: Unfortunately, a lot of people shared similar stories. You know, this is something that's happening across the country, and it's very, very common, especially for students of color, to experience discouragement.

GODOY: A new study in the journal JAMA Health Forum backs up that assessment. It finds that students of color are much more likely to face financial and discriminatory barriers to med school than their white peers. The study looked at responses from more than 81,000 students who took the medical college admission test. Lead author Dr. Jessica Faiz of UCLA notes the standardized exam is grueling. People study for it for months, if not years.

JESSICA FAIZ: You paid for the test. You took all that time to study. You are definitely quite committed to applying.

GODOY: Even so, Faiz and her colleagues found that Black and Hispanic test takers were significantly less likely to go on to apply and enroll in med school than white test takers. Not only that, but Black, Hispanic and Native American students were more likely to say they had money problems, like difficulty affording test prep materials and already having large student loans.

UTIBE ESSIEN: And even further, they're more likely to face discouragement from advisers when applying to medical school compared to their white counterparts.

GODOY: That's study co-author, Dr. Utibe Essien. He's an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA. He says the findings are important because lots of research has shown people of color have much better health outcomes when their doctors are of a similar racial or ethnic background.

ESSIEN: Having a doctor who looks like you if you're from a minoritized group makes you more likely to accept flu vaccination, to have a colonoscopy, to consider having a more invasive heart procedure.

GODOY: There's even new research that finds Black people live longer in areas with more Black doctors.

ESSIEN: We're not just advocating diversity out of the goodness of our hearts, but it really, literally, is saving lives.

GODOY: Other researchers say the study sheds much-needed light on the unconscious biases that can block the path to med school for students of color. Here's Dr. Jaya Aysola with Penn Medicine Center for Health Equity Advancement.

JAYA AYSOLA: From who advises you to submit an application to who then eventually help select your application to those who interview you, there's bias all along those processes.

GODOY: As for Sabina Spigner, despite being discouraged by her pre-med adviser, she didn't give up. She got two master's degrees in science and public health before heading to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She'll graduate as Dr. Spigner next month. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN SONG, "THIS MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.