Senators look for healthcare crisis solutions amid minority worker shortage

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions delved into the acute shortage of minority healthcare workers during a hearing in Washington on Thursday. Photo by Sophia Didinova/Medill News Service
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WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Senators and medical professionals met Thursday to find solutions to the growing healthcare crisis and the acute shortage of minority healthcare workers as the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions delved into the issue.

Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that just 5% of doctors in the United States are Black, and only 6% are Latino, which is about three times less than the overall Black and Latino population in the country.

Racially based and systemic wealth inequity has barred many students of color from becoming doctors, said Samuel Cook, a resident at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Cook said he grew up in a so-called "inherently sick" neighborhood in which the doctors never looked like him, and he now has a medical student loan of $400,000.

"Though the costs are the same no matter the student's race, the financial impact it will have on their family is not," he said.

Yet, medical professionals emphasized that patients experience better health outcomes when treated by healthcare providers who share their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Such providers are more likely to understand the unique challenges that influence patients' health outcomes, the experts said.

Michael Galvez, a pediatric surgeon at Valley Children's Hospital in California, said he noticed that his bilingualism helps him build trust with patients and their parents and avoid miscommunication that might delay care.

"I speak Spanish every day with my patients," he said. "In my practice of medicine, I've come to recognize that my language and culture are as valuable as my training at prestigious universities."

Distrust is a crucial problem that prevents creating positive health outcomes, said Yolanda Lawson, the president of the National Medical Association, the largest organization to represent African American physicians and their patients in this country.

However, given the history of healthcare delivery and research in the United States, she added, the reasons for distrust are understandable.

Cook added that racial biases still harm America's Black patients. He quoted from a 2016 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that said "Half of White medical trainees [surveyed] believe such myths as Black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than White people."

Senators said they were particularly worried by the alarming disproportion in maternal deaths in the country. Sanders, for example, said the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among high-income nations.

This crisis has not been felt equally, as maternal mortality rates in Black and Native Indigenous communities are two to four times higher compared to those of White communities, Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., added.

According to March of Dimes research, 36% of U.S. counties do not have a hospital or birth center that offers obstetric care or any obstetric providers, and the number of areas with limited access to care has been increasing.

Still, the main factor that contributes to the maternal deaths is related to money.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, testified that while his staff was working on the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act, members discovered that 53% of pregnancy-related deaths happen between a week and a year postpartum.

That led to Texas extending postpartum coverage to 12 months for eligible Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program participants.

"We can do more," Burgess said.