Diversity Infects Medical School

The obsession with “diversity” in American higher education has spread like an epidemic, beginning in the humanities and social sciences and moving on to most undergraduate education and grad schools. There have been a few pockets of resistance like mathematics and the physical sciences where answers are right or wrong and getting them wrong has serious consequences.

Medicine is a field where wrong answers can have really, really serious consequences so you’d think that medical schools would shun the diversity obsession and focus entirely on individual competence. Unfortunately, at least one medical school, Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City has succumbed and now has a three-person Office of Faculty Diversity.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a softball piece on this new “diversity” initiative.

What is the justification for this office, which undoubtedly uses several hundred thousand dollars of tuition money annually? According to Dr. Debra Leonard, the Chief Diversity Officer, it is to “change the Weill Cornell environment to a diverse and inclusive community, so all people feel welcomed, accepted, and part of the team.”

A good follow-up question would have been, “Is there any evidence that the faculty of Weill Cornell as currently constituted makes some people feel that they are not welcomed, accepted, or part of the team?” Or, “How many complaints have been issued against faculty members for improper treatment of students, patients, or other employees of the school?”

Apparently, no such skeptical questions were asked. You have to wonder, though, how often it happens that medical professionals in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities make people feel unwelcome simply because they’re from a different background.

The main rationale Dr. Leonard gives for her office is that American medical schools need to “model diversity” but aren’t doing a good enough job of that because black and Hispanic professors comprise only three and four percent respectively of the faculties at American medical schools, less than the percentages of those groups in the general population.

Shortly after his election, Bill Clinton promised that his cabinet would “look like America” and that idea has morphed into the current notion that just about every collection of people should “model diversity.” (A good example I recently wrote about is the decision of the U.S. Naval Academy to replace some of its color guard at a World Series game with “diverse” midshipmen.) It has become an article of faith among many academics that institutions are necessarily better if they “model diversity,” but that’s all it is—an article of faith. Is there any reason to believe that Weill Cornell will do a better job of training doctors if, say, the next ten faculty members it hires are from “varied” backgrounds?

Suppose, hypothetically, that Weill Cornell were choosing between Dr. Miguel Perez, whose parents escaped from Cuba and Dr. Semyon Markov, whose parents escaped from the Soviet Union. Assume that both are fine practitioners. Is it certain that the faculty would be better if Dr. Perez were hired simply because his ancestry puts him in a “diverse” category while Dr. Markov’s does not?  I can’t see why.

A related rationale for pursuing “diversity” mentioned in the article is the need to have doctors who are “culturally competent.” Dr. Leonard was quoted as saying, “If you don’t understand that the cultural background of your patients influences how they cooperate with and respond to treatment, then you won’t be able to treat them as effectively.”

In rare instances, that’s true, but how does that fact justify hiring preferences in favor of medical school faculty who come from “varied backgrounds”?

The assumption here is that a doctor who comes from a “minority” background knows about the cultural peculiarities of “his” people and will be able to more effectively teach doctors in training how do handle challenging patients. But the assumption that a med school professor who is black or Hispanic knows about the cultural peculiarities of black and Hispanic patients is unfounded. It’s like assuming that every black person is good at basketball or every Hispanic is a devout Catholic.

Remember Bill Cosby’s TV character Dr. Huxtable? He was an upper middle-class black doctor in Philadelphia. If he had found himself with a patient from, say, the Gullah-speaking region of South Carolina, would he have been better at dealing with the cultural (and probably language) difficulties than a white doctor? No reason to think so.

Furthermore, not all possible cultural barriers in medicine have to do with racial minorities. A white doctor (my Dr. Markov, for example) would have just as much trouble dealing with a white patient from Appalachia who has a strong, religiously-based  aversion to medicines and surgery as Dr. Huxtable would.

It’s probably impossible to teach future doctors about every possible situation they might encounter where “cultural competence” would matter, and trying to do so would soak up a lot of time better spent studying medicine. And more importantly, there is no basis for thinking that whatever lessons can be usefully imparted in med school can only be taught if the faculty “models diversity.”

In a field like medicine where there can be serious repercussions from bad decisions, it’s important to select professionals, professors and students alike, on the basis of individual ability rather than group membership or ancestry. It’s worrisome that the “diversity” obsession is pushing its way into medical school.