The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fewer patients of color have health-care providers who look like them

Community of Hope clinical nurse manager Imani Mark gives Ezekiel Akinyeni the coronavirus vaccine in D.C. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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When you look at your doctor, who looks back at you?

That could depend on your race — and affect the quality of care you receive.

New data from the Urban Institute, a think tank that conducts economic and social research, shows that while nearly three-fourths of White patients have a health-care provider of the same race or who speaks the same language, the same is not true for patients of color.

Only 22.2 percent of Black adults and 29.2 percent of Hispanic and Latino adults surveyed consider their usual health-care providers to share their race or ethnicity, and about a quarter of Hispanic and Latino respondents said their provider is of their same race or ethnicity and speaks to them using their preferred language.

The study used data from the Urban Institute’s nationally representative Health Reform Monitoring Survey, which surveyed 9,067 adults in 2021.

Racism in care leads to health disparities, doctors and other experts say as they push for change

The analysis shows the effects of a health-care workforce that has historically placed high barriers to entry for people of color. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, despite strides in admissions in recent decades, fewer than 12 percent of U.S. physicians identify as Black or Hispanic, and just 2.9 percent of medical students are Black men.

A diverse medical workforce does more than check a box for inclusion; patients with providers of their race or ethnicity and who speak their language report better outcomes and are more likely to be prescribed preventive care. Language is a particular barrier; patients whose providers speak their language are more likely to receive what they see as quality care and report better communication.

To eliminate bias, some seek out doctors of their own race or ethnicity

What will it take to change the balance for patients of color? Improving access to medical education through historically Black colleges and universities is one suggestion; another is increasing financial aid. Medical interpretation could bridge the gap, too, as could rewarding multilingual providers.

Until then, however, those disparities in the doctor’s office will be a reality for a majority of people of color.

“Trust is part of the foundation of good patient-provider relationships and is especially important for communities of color, who have long been discriminated against in healthcare,” Jacquelynn Orr, a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study, said in a statement. “Having a provider who looks like you and shares your experiences builds trust.”