How can diversity be increased in today's residency programs?

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published November 6, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The current pool of residents across the US underrepresents certain groups that can benefit from more outreach, engagement, and support.

  • Several residency programs have started modeling successful strategies to increase diversity, setting the stage to reduce gaps in care and improve cultural competency in medicine.

  • Role modeling workshops for future physicians should begin in grammar school and progress to mentorships, internships, and residency retention.

Diversity is our strength, not only as a society, but within specialized services like medicine and patient care. Medical professionals with different backgrounds bring new perspectives, approaches, and value to diverse patient populations in need of a more robust, equitable healthcare system. 

The trajectory to becoming a physician arguably starts in early childhood.[] Residency is pivotal in recruiting and retaining diverse healthcare professionals. 

Here’s the current state of residency programs in the US and successful pursuits worth continuing.

Current residency statistics

Physicians are so much more than statistics. However, looking at the numbers helps identify opportunities for increasing diversity in this highly challenging career path—featuring people of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, gender expression, and so on.

 According to an editorial in Cureus on diversity in residency programs, “underrepresented minority groups” make up about 33% of the US population but only 15% of the medical resident population.[] As of 2018, 5.8% of practicing physicians were Hispanic, 5.0% were Black, and 0.3% were American Indian or Alaskan Native.

The Cureus authors state that efforts to better match the resident pool with the general population and the patient populations they serve is a step toward bridging health outcome disparities. 

Other potential benefits of a more diverse workforce include stronger cultural competency and broader research agendas in clinical study design.

Outreach programs for future doctors

For many individuals, the seed to become a medical provider is planted during childhood. Fortunately, recent outreach efforts recognize the importance of connecting with kids at a young age to provide role modeling for future career planning in medicine.

Researchers analyzing data from graduate medical education programs across the country found that successful diversity programs link residents to the pre-health pathway in kindergarten through grade 12, as they reported in JAMA Network Open.[]

Suturing or first aid workshops, participation in career fairs, and opportunities for student shadowing are some examples of these outreach programs.

Efforts further down the pipeline aim to engage students in community colleges, universities, and post-baccalaureate programs. For instance, one residency program successfully partnered with MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement), a statewide organization for college and career prep, to provide a pre-med workshop on a community college campus.

Another residency program conducts yearly recruitment trips to historically Black colleges and universities with medical schools, paving the way for continued mentorship after the event. Social media has also provided new platforms to reach diverse groups of students.

Recruitment and retention strategies

The JAMA Network Open authors also found that there’s been progress in boosting diversity throughout the residency experience, starting with internships. Funding to sponsor interns with travel, housing, and meals opens opportunities for students to engage in clinical immersions and mentorship from faculty. These students have the chance to visualize themselves in the medical provider role. Among these participants, up to 25% went on to successfully match with a residency program.

Adjustments to the application process also help capture more diverse residents. Some programs have implemented efforts to go beyond test scores and evaluate candidates based on additional qualitative measures, including life experience and community service and leadership. 

Medical rotations in underserved communities and research studies focused on health disparities allow existing residents to gain experience in these critical areas. Providing compensation for outreach work, and program-wide efforts to acknowledge religious and cultural holidays, are additional ways some residency programs help foster a more diverse resident population.

What this means for you

Residents have intense workloads. Carving out time and energy for diversity outreach isn’t realistic without program support. Nonetheless, ongoing efforts to engage underrepresented community members starting in the pre-health pathway during grade school can positively impact future generations of physicians and patients.

Read Next: During residency, showing up for your family is equally as important as job performance

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