Public Release: 

Survey of medical students affirms value of student diversity

Harvard Medical School

BOSTON, MA--Racial and ethnic diversity in the student population is a positive influence that helps medical students work more effectively with patients of different backgrounds, according to a study in the May Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The findings were cited in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in the University of Michigan affirmative action case.

In conducting the survey, faculty at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education used telephone interviews to reach students at Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco medical schools. Fifty-five percent of the students were reached and 96 percent of these responded. The ethnic and racial composition of the students surveyed was comparable to the makeup of U.S. medical students as a whole.

Asked if interaction with students of diverse backgrounds was a positive element in their educational experience at medical school, 94 percent of the students agreed, and the responses did not differ significantly among races. Seventy-six percent indicated that a diverse student body improved their ability to care for patients of different races, while only 4 percent said diversity was little or no help.

"I think this is simply a recognition of the fact they're going to be practicing in a multicultural society, and since little of the multicultural component is going to come from faculty, it has to come from other students," said lead author Dean Whitla, director of the Counseling and Consulting Psychology Program and lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Of perhaps even more relevance to the Supreme Court case is that 90 percent of all students believed that affirmative action should be strengthened or maintained at medical schools, while only 3 percent thought it should be discontinued.

"There are very few data that address students' own perceptions of the role of diversity in the classroom," said Joan Reede, HMS dean for diversity and community partnership and one of the study's authors. "In terms of medical education, diversity opens people's eyes to the kinds of issues, perspectives, and populations they're going to be treating in the future."

"I think this study is important in that it modifies the dialogue to incorporate not only what administration and faculty deem to be important but also to include what students think is important," Reede added.

The survey began by asking students about their interactions with students of different races. Interaction increased steadily through their educational lives; on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being often and 1 none, 50 percent of students rated their interaction with those of other races as a 4 or 5 before and during secondary school; 67 percent gave that high rating for their college years; and 85 percent did so for medical school.

"It was surprising that students hadn't had a great deal of contact with students of different backgrounds until they went to college, and that was true for both African Americans and for the whole student body, in fact. But 90 percent of them had friends of a different racial or ethnic background when they left medical school," said Whitla.

Eighty-four percent of students surveyed believed that diversity improved classroom discussions, leading to more examples and increased discussion of alternative viewpoints, though they did not think that diversity necessarily led to higher levels of intellectual conflict or challenge.

The researchers said that some majority students commented in open-ended questions that high diversity was an important factor in their choice of medical school and they felt that it was an honor to be chosen at a school known for efforts to recruit minorities.

These high numbers were unexpected. "If you do a lot of social science research, you don't expect to find such overwhelming support for a concept such as diversity," said Whitla.

"What this study doesn't tell you is whether the effect lasts," Reede said. "It doesn't tell you that it changes how students practice medicine down the road. We have classes that have been more or less diverse, and it would be very interesting to see how diversity has or has not shaped the thinking, actions, and behavior of Harvard alums."

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Harvard Medical School has more than 5,000 full-time faculty working in eight academic departments based at the School's Boston quadrangle or in one of 47 academic departments at 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes. Those HMS affiliated institutions include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Hospital, Center for Blood Research, Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Mental Health Center, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, VA Boston Healthcare System.

Contact: Harvard Medical School
John Lacey, 617-432-0442, (public_affairs@hms.harvard.edu)
Jennifer Frazer, 617-432-0442, (public_affairs@hms.harvard.edu)

Harvard Graduate School of Education
Margaret Haas, 617-495-0740, (haasma@gse.harvard.edu)

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