Promoting Diversity to Eliminate Health Disparities

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The terms health disparities and health inequities are often used interchangeably but actually refer to different measures. Disparities are differences in health outcomes among populations. Health inequities are the unfair and avoidable differences in health outcomes seen within and between populations that are often socially resolvable. Identification and awareness of the differences in health outcomes among populations are essential steps toward reducing disparities in communities at greatest risk. Health disparities in the United States persist even as the overall health of the country's population has improved. These disparities are more apparent in minority populations, which are also underrepresented among physicians and physician assistants (PAs) including African American, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native communities. Although many disparities are influenced by socioeconomic factors, numerous inequities are present regardless of insurance status or income level and include reduced access to care, lower quality of care, and decreased longevity.
Increasing the diversity of our health care workforce has been suggested by many sources as a tool to eliminate these disparities and inequities by increasing trust and communication and improving access to care. Diversity also has been recommended as a means to improve medical education for all students and to broaden the scope of medical research. As the country's population has become more diverse, the diversity of the PA profession has not kept pace. Isolated efforts to increase diversity in the PA profession have included targeted outreach to minority students, task-dedicated program recruiters, a holistic admissions process with a diverse admissions committee, and community engagement. These efforts need to be stepped up and should include an organized national effort to increase diversity in the PA workforce. The objectives of this review are to (1) describe the extent of health disparities, (2) discuss how increasing the diversity of the health care workforce can decrease these disparities and benefit our patients and our students, and (3) consider options for increasing diversity in the PA workforce.
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