Diversity has long been a buzzword in business and education, and it’s rapidly becoming an important issue in health care. Research shows that diversity—of race as well as ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic status—has a measurable impact on innovation and even the bottom line. To better understand why diversity matters in our increasingly global world and in your medical practice, read on.

Changing physician demographics

Medical schools have had more diverse applicants over the past 37 years, according to a new report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), with the notable exception of the demographic of black men. However, when it comes to practicing physicians, these changes aren’t keeping pace with the U.S.’s demographic shift, notes the AAMC.

The outlook is better for female doctors: AAMC data shows that minority women make up a greater percentage of physicians age 29 and younger compared to their male counterparts. Among white physicians in that age group, women made up 48.7 percent, according to 2013 data. The percentage of women entering optometry school is at an all-time high in North America, comprising nearly 70 percent of the class of 2018.

Why diversity matters to patients

Does doctors’ age, sex, or race really matter as much as their medical skills? It matters to patients. Patients want doctors who look like them, says Damon Tweedy in his New York Times op-ed, “The Case for Black Doctors.” While the issue can be controversialsome studies have shown a correlation between patients’ race and/or gender and that of the doctors they choose. In the case of Hispanic patients, this could be a language issue, while in certain specialties like gynecology, it could simply be a matter of patients’ comfort and preference.

The diversity of health care providers becomes more significant when you consider that minority doctors tend to be the ones treating minority patients. This study found that among black patients, even after controlling for factors such as office location, there remains a “significant association … between the ability to choose one’s physician and having a physician of one’s own race.” This is important, given U.S. Census projections that by 2050, the Hispanic and Asian populations will both triple, the black population will almost double, and the white population will remain fairly constant. “Studies have shown that nonwhite doctors are the ones who tend to treat patients with low incomes, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, non–English-speaking patients and Medicaid beneficiaries,” writes Rebecca Adams in the Huffington Post.

Numerous studies have shown that patients are more likely to receive quality preventive care and treatment when they share race, age, ethnicity, language and/or religious experience with their providers, according to an article published by the USFC School of Nursing. Tweedy says efforts to recruit, mentor, and train doctors from diverse backgrounds could produce more doctors “who are better prepared to relate to the patients who need them the most.”

Why diversity matters in your practice

Whether you are all for diversity or wonder if it can really impact your practice, it is reasonable to question what the benefits are, says Katherine W. Phillips in Scientific American. After all, even the word “diversity” can cause discomfort and disagreement. Yet research backs up the premise that diversity in any environment ups everyone’s game, so to speak.

Phillips writes: “The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”

When we are surrounded by people who are like us, the assumption is that we share the same experiences and viewpoints. However, when people are brought together who are different from one another in terms of race, age, gender, and background, they bring to the table different information, opinions, and perspectives, points out Joann Weiner in the Washington Post. This opens up new opportunities for team collaboration and communication.

And, as we’ve said, patients want diversity from their doctors. Seven out of 10 ethnic consumers/patients believe that the best eye care practices include staff from a mix of races and ethnicities, according to the consensus paper, “A Collaborative Approach to Improving the Eye Health of Diverse Populations,” published by Transitions Optical, Inc. However, just half of eye care professionals employ a diverse or bilingual staff. Additionally, the paper found that few eye care professionals offer bilingual resources, display a mix of races and ethnicities in point-of-sale materials, or provide multicultural staff training and education.

What you can do now

Practices need to get up to speed on these issues, or risk being left behind. “Knowing how to serve people with different values, health beliefs, and alternative perspectives about health and wellness is a business imperative” in most of the increasingly diverse regions of the U.S., write Jan Salisbury, M.S., and Sam Byrd in their report, “Why Diversity Matters in Health Care.”

A good first step is to join a professional organization that values and promotes diversity. For instance, Ophthalmic Women Leaders (OWL) is a group whose vision is to “promote and develop diverse leadership to advance ophthalmic innovation and patient care.”

Simply taking a look at your marketing materials and patient education can also be a step in the right direction. Do you provide information in other languages if you serve a bi- or multi-lingual patient base? Do the people depicted in your brochures and educational materials resemble your actual patients in terms of age, race, gender, etc.?

For more information, check out Anthem’s toolkit for health care professionals: Caring for Diverse Populations.

And to find out more about educating all different kinds of patients in new ways, sign up for a free two-week trial of Rendia.