Proportion of Black doctors in America has barely changed in 120 years, study reveals

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — One would assume that over the span of 120 years the United States has seen a meaningful increase in African-American doctors. However, researchers from UCLA report the proportion of Black physicians across America has increased by a mere four percent over that time. Moreover, the percentage of Black males becoming doctors hasn’t changed at all since 1940.

The study also finds there remains a significant income gap between Caucasian and Black male doctors. This disparity, study authors say, is likely the result of multiple factors including pay discrimination and unequal access to career opportunities.

“These findings demonstrate how slow progress has been, and how far and fast we have to go, if we care about the diversity of the physician workforce and the health benefits such diversity brings to patients, particularly minority patients,” says study author Dr. Dan Ly, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, in a university release.

Researchers looked at U.S. Census Bureau data spanning from 1900 to 2018 during this study. That dataset encompassed roughly 150,000 doctors (3,300 Black male physicians and 1,600 Black female physicians).

Little appears to be changing over time

In 1900, 1.3 percent of U.S. doctors were Black, with African-Americas making up 11.6 percent of the entire population. By 1940, 9.7 percent of the population was African-American and 2.8 percent of physicians were Black; 2.7 percent were Black men and just 0.1 percent were Black women. Fast forward to 2018 and 12.8 percent of the U.S. population is Black with 5.4 percent of U.S. physicians being of African descent (2.6 percent Black men and 2.8 percent Black women).

Between 1940 and 2018 the amount of Black female doctors increased by 2.7 percentage points. Within that same timeframe however, the proportion of Black male doctors stayed pretty much the same.

“If medical leadership is serious about making the physician workforce more representative of the general population, much more effective policies need to be conceptualized and implemented,” Ly explains.

In 1960, the pay gap between a Black male doctor and a white male doctor was roughly $68,000. By 2018, that difference had decreased to $50,000 — an improvement, but still noticeably unequal.

“If this represents unequal access to specialties, sustained efforts need to be made in order to diversify specialties in medicine,” Ly concludes.

The study appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.