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The Ethnicity Factor in Choosing a Physician

I would like to begin this article with a question: Do the name and ethnicity of a doctor affect your decision when choosing a physician?

America has always been a melting pot with diverse cultures and ethnicity. The medical field is a melting pot in its own right with its own politics, conflicts, racial disparities and the like.

When I was starting medical school, my mother suggested that I should change my Chinese first name to an American one, which she reasoned would be easier for patients to remember. She thought that it would reveal my immigrant background, which may turn some patients away.

I immediately opposed this idea. There is no shame in being a physician with an immigrant background or a native name, I reasoned, and I never regarded my Chinese first name as a roadblock to success. If anything, it shows ambition, individuality, courage and hard work. I like my name: it carries my identity and ancestral background. In addition, I want to work for underserved populations and immigrant communities where, if anything, an immigrant background may allow me to form more trusting relationships with my patients.

Would you change your foreign name? Is there actually a correlation between ethnicity concordance and quality of the physician-patient relationship?

Dr. Pauline Chen, MD, author of the “Doctor and Patient” blog in The New York Times, describes in her article “When the Doctor Doesn’t Look Like You” the injustice many physicians face when they practice in America due to their international medical degrees and accents. To defend foreign physicians, Chen cites a landmark study by the Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research in Philadelphia. It showed no correlation between physician ethnicity and patient outcome. Rather, what mattered was physicians’ experience and training. Consequently, you would conclude that objective factors like accents, names and ethnicity should not come into consideration when choosing a physician.

What about the perception of foreign physicians to the American general public? The fact that such a study was warranted implies the presence of prejudices against physicians of certain races by the general public.

As it turns out, across the general population, patients do have a longer-lasting and more harmonious relationship with physicians of the same race. They view their doctor appointments as more satisfactory and intimate, and their doctors as more caring and compassionate. Another study, however, offered a similar but slightly different conclusion. In addition to race, gender and ethnicity, they also included whether patients had insurance as a factor. What they found was a bit surprising: Caucasian patients with insurance are more likely to seek Caucasian physicians than those without insurance; African-American patients without insurance are more likely to seek African-American physicians than those with insurance.

Good news for non-Caucasian Americans and physicians, according to a longitudinal data analysis conducted by the AAMC: the percentage of physicians of racial and ethnic minorities has increased dramatically from 2002 to 2004. Asians and Hispanics are projected to be the fastest growing racial groups in the overall physician population, followed by African-Americans and Native Americans.

With increasing numbers of Hispanic and Asian immigrants coming to America, and the overall growth of the minority population, the American health care arena is becoming increasingly diverse. Such heterogeneity requires both physicians and patients to be culturally sensitive and open-minded to maximize the utility of the physician-patient relationship.

Qing Meng Zhang Qing Meng Zhang (9 Posts)

Reporter and in-Training Staff Member

Rush Medical College

Meng Zhang is a medical student at Rush Medical College, Class of 2017, in Chicago. Meng obtained her bachelor degree in Biological Science in 2010 from University of California - San Diego. Her professional interests are writing, underserved communities, and holistic medicine.

When she's not being a 5/8th of a doctor and writing patient notes "for educational purpose only", she likes to sleep until sunrise, eat a healthy meal, and enjoy every bit of sunshine Chicago offers. Reading, watching TV shows/movies, froyo-ing, and shopping are always welcomed when possible.

  • Jennifer Evan

    I think your article brings up a very valid issue in healthcare, if one that not often spoken about. I had a unique experience relating to the topic in which I was able to intern in a hospital in a city that is 96% Caucasian, but also in which a large majority of the physicians in the hospital were from foreign countries. Some of the physicians did medical school overseas, others did both medical school and residency overseas, and still others were working in the U.S. on work visas. This meant that many of the doctors whom I was able to observe had very ethnic names and accents. What you may be surprised to hear is that within my month internship, I saw that the patients, who were overwhelmingly Caucasian, absolutely loved their physicians and many had very open communication and caring relationships with them. I was, I’ll admit, worried that I may overhear patients voicing closed-minded beliefs or judgments simply because ethnic minorities are not as common in this part of the state. However, I literally not once heard a patient make any comment, whether to their family or the doctor him/herself about their ethnicity. In fact, every day I heard patients telling me, or nurses, or their family members how much they loved their physician and how good he or she is at what they do, and that they really care for them not as a sick patient, but as a person. So I think that, at least in some areas, Americans realize that America is a melting pot and that is what America is about, appreciating diversity and coming together to establish the best medical care we can offer, regardless of what country a person might be from originally.