To improve health outcomes and reduce health disparities, it is critical for the health care industry to be as diverse as the population it serves. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the United States. For example, Hispanics make up more than 18 percent of the population, but just six percent of physicians. African Americans make up more than 13 percent of the population in the United States, but account for fewer than five percent of the physicians.

So why does this matter?

Lack of diversity in health care is a problem. It is linked to poor health outcomes in minority communities. An African American woman with breast cancer is 67 percent more likely to die from the disease than a white woman. Hispanic and African American youth are at greater risk of dying from diabetes than whites. Creating a more diverse health care work force is one way to tackle these health disparities.

Studies have shown that greater diversity among health professionals is associated with improved access to care, greater patient satisfaction, and better patient-provider communication. It’s understandable that people might feel more comfortable seeing physicians who share their language, racial or cultural background. That comfort level can be what ensures that people seek regular medical care, and don’t wait until they are forced into emergency care.

In 2018, L.A. Care Health Plan launched Elevating the Safety Net, a $155 million, five-year initiative to recruit highly qualified primary care physicians (PCPs) into the Los Angeles County safety net. The initiative was prompted by a growing PCP shortage – a shortage that is worse in low-income and minority communities. Safety net clinics and practices often have a difficult time competing against universities and major health systems which can pay more.

L.A. Care’s initiative gives safety net facilities a fighting chance. The initiative offers grants to clinics and practices to use for salary subsidies, sign-on bonuses, and/or relocation costs to recruit new physicians to the Los Angeles County safety net. It offers loan repayment grants to those new physicians to relieve medical school debt. Since its launch, 73 new physicians have been recruited into the county’s safety net, and nearly half are minorities.

Each year, Elevating the Safety Net also provides eight full medical school scholarships to students who have expressed a desire to work in underserved communities. Our partners at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science have done an excellent job finding those students. To date, we have awarded 16 full scholarships to a diverse group of students, including seven Hispanics and three African Americans. Knowing that such a scholarship exists could make the difference between a minority student even deciding to apply for medical school.

Racial and ethnic minority health care providers are more likely than their white peers to serve minority and other underserved communities, but medical school debt often keeps them from following their dreams. The scholarship program relieves that debt, and several of our scholars have specifically said it has freed them from having to choose a job whose chief purpose is to pay off medical school debt.

Another thing that would help minority physicians work in the Los Angeles County safety net is completing their residency in that safety net. Physicians often stay in the community where their residency occurred. For that reason, L.A. Care has added a Residency Support Program to the Elevating the Safety initiative. Last year, we committed more than $5 million dollars to create 14 new residency slots at five facilities in Los Angeles County.

It will take innovative initiatives like Elevating the Safety Net to make a difference in building diversity in health care. L.A. Care is proud to be on the front lines of the effort.

John Baackes is CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan.

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