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Educational Benefits of Diversity in Medical School: A Survey of Students

Whitla, Dean K. PhD; Orfield, Gary PhD; Silen, William MD; Teperow, Carole; Howard, Carolyn MEd; Reede, Joan MD, MPH

Special Theme Research Reports

Purpose: Many U.S. medical schools have abandoned affirmative action, limiting the recruitment and reducing the admission of underrepresented minority (URM) students even though research supports the premise that the public benefits from an increase in URM physicians and that URM physicians are likely to serve minority, poor, and Medicaid populations. Faculty and students commonly assume they benefit from peer cultural exchange, and the published evidence for the past two decades supports this notion. This research examined the students' perceptions of the educational merits of a diverse student body by surveying medical students at two schools.

Method: In 2000, medical students from all four years at Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine were enrolled in a telephone survey about the relevance of racial diversity (among students) in their medical education. Students responded to the interviewer's questions on a five-point Likert-type scale.

Results: Of the 55% of students who could be located, 97% responded to the survey. Students reported having little intercultural contact during their formative years but significantly more interactions during higher education years, especially in medical school. Students reported contacts with diverse peers greatly enhanced their educational experience. They strongly supported strengthening or maintaining current affirmative action policies in admissions. The responses and demography of the Harvard and UCSF students did not differ significantly, nor did they differ for majority students and URM students—all groups overwhelmingly thought that racial and ethnic diversity among their peers enhanced their education.

Conclusions: Diversity in the student body enhanced the educational experiences of students in two U.S. medical schools.

Dr. Whitla is director, Counseling and Psychology Program, and lecturer on education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Dr. Orfield is professor of education and social policy, Harvard Law School, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard University Kennedy School of Government; Dr. Silen is Johnson and Johnson Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Emeritus, Harvard Medical School; Ms. Teperow is administrative director, Office of Faculty Development, Children's Hospital Boston; Ms. Howard is research assistant, Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Dr. Reede is dean of diversity and community partnership, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. At the time of this research, Dr. Silen and Ms. Teperow were with the Harvard Medical School Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, where Dr. Silen was the dean.

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to Dr. Whitla, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 409 Larsen Hall, 15 Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138; e-mail: 〈whitla@fas.harvard.edu〉.

The authors thank Joseph B. Martin, Dean of the Harvard University Faculty of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Haile T. Debas, Dean of the School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco for giving them permission to interview students enrolled at Harvard and UCSF medical schools. They are grateful to Warren C. Reed and Terrence Tivnan for aid in the experimental design and data analysis, and to Jody E. Clarke for assisting in data analysis. They also thank The Gallup Organization for conducting telephone interviews. This research was supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies.

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges