IN virtually every field of medicine, black patients as a group fare the worst. This was one of my first and most painful lessons as a medical student nearly 20 years ago.
The statistics that made my stomach cramp back then are largely the same today: The infant mortality rate in the black population is twice that of whites. Black men are seven times more likely than white men to receive a diagnosis of H.I.V. and more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer. Black women have nearly double the obesity rate of white women and are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer. Black people experience much higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and stroke. The list goes on and on.
The usual explanations for these health disparities — poverty, poor access to medical care and unhealthy lifestyle choices, to name a few — are certainly valid, but the longer I've practiced medicine, the more I've come to appreciate a factor that is less obvious: the dearth of black doctors. Only around 5 percent of practicing physicians are black, compared with more than 13 percent of Americans overall.
As a general rule, black patients are more likely to feel comfortable with black doctors. Studies have shown that they are more likely to seek them out for treatment, and to report higher satisfaction with their care. In addition, more black doctors practice in high-poverty communities of color, where physicians are relatively scarce.