Minority Doctors in Short Supply in State

Elizabeth Fernandez, San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2008

A new study on physicians in California shows a glaring gap between the number of doctors of color compared with the state’s ethnically diverse population, especially among African Americans and Latinos.

At the same time, the state has a disproportionate number of Asian and white doctors, according to the UCSF study, which focuses on doctor ethnicity and language fluency.

It found that out of nearly 62,000 practicing doctors in California, only 5 percent are Latino even though Latinos comprise a third of the state’s total population. Only 3 percent of doctors in California are black, compared with 7 percent of the state’s overall black population. While Latinos and African Americans make up about 40 percent of the state’s residents, fewer than 10 percent of California’s doctors are black or Latino.

The disparity is particularly alarming because minority physicians are far more likely to practice primary care medicine and work with poor or uninsured patients in rural areas, inner cities or other communities with a chronic shortage of physicians.

“This is a critical public health issue,” said Dr. Kevin Grumbach, director of the UCSF Center for California Health Workforce Studies, which released the report Wednesday. {snip}

In a state with more than 35 million people, fewer than 3,300 Latino and only about 2,000 African American physicians are in “active patient care,” said Grumbach.

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The health profession has long bemoaned the poor representation of minorities among physician ranks, a disparity wrought in part by a lamentable legacy of discrimination that included segregated educational practices. But this report is the first to analyze the physician workforce in California based on data compiled by the California Medical Board. The data was mandated by a 2001 state law requiring the board to gather information based on factors including doctor specialties, ethnicity and languages spoken.

The report found that whites make up 61 percent of the state’s doctors while the white population is just under 48 percent. Asian and Pacific Islander doctors comprise 26 percent of the physician workforce while the state’s Asian population is about 11 percent. That category includes doctors who say they are Chinese, Indian or Filipino.

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Yet within the Asian-doctor category, there is a troubling shortage of Samoan, Cambodian and Hmong doctors, the report found, decrying the overall pool of doctors statewide as inadequate.

The ethnic gap is just as acute in the Bay Area, where a fifth of the general population is Latino, compared with less than 4 percent of the doctor population. The Bay Area’s black population is just over 7 percent while the number of black doctors is just under 3 percent.

Besides English, Spanish is the language most commonly spoken by California’s doctors—about 18 percent said they speak Spanish fluently.

Medical experts at the news conference stressed that ethnic diversity is directly tied to better access and quality of health care for disadvantaged patients.

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