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To Improve Minority Health, Focus on Minority Physician Researchers

Clinical Research Pathways Executive Director Marjorie A. Speers, Ph.D.

When a physician is a clinical investigator, patients stand to benefit—even if they never participate in a clinical trial.

Simply put, physician researchers are “in the loop.” They’re familiar with the latest literature and tend to have greater access to new knowledge about disease processes, promising treatments, and preventive measures. Because of their broader experience, physician researchers are more likely to continually assess their practices with an eye toward improvement. In addition, they have more opportunities to tap key connections on behalf of their patients and those of their colleagues.

But physician researchers also are more likely to be white. And that contributes to health disparities.

Studies show that, when care is equivalent, minority patients prefer minority physicians. According to recent data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only 1.5% of NIH-funded physician researchers reported their race as black or African American. Another 4.6% reported their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino.

As a result, few minority patients have the option of choosing as their healthcare provider a physician researcher of the same race or ethnicity—and few reap the benefits that such a relationship could provide.

That’s one of the main reasons Clinical Research Pathways’ signature diversity initiative emphasizes training and mentoring minority physicians to serve as clinical investigators. Research tells us that these physicians can play an instrumental role not only in increasing minority participation in clinical trials but also in bringing the significant additional benefits of clinical research to underserved populations and communities.

How clinical research drives quality care

It’s no coincidence that hospitals with the best reputations for medical care also lead the way in clinical research. These facilities are hubs of education and innovation. They develop new medicines and cutting-edge technologies, evaluate therapies and practices, and set the standard for high-quality care. These facilities continually seek, share, and fine-tune new knowledge.

Because of all of these attributes, these hospitals are magnets for top physicians and researchers. These facilities also are the hospitals of choice for many patients, especially when they receive a diagnosis of serious illness.

Eventually, the new knowledge and best practices make their way beyond the top hospitals and their patients to other facilities. Until then, many communities—especially those with sizable minority populations—continue to lag behind. The very communities that could benefit most often must wait the longest to realize the advantages of advances in healthcare and research.

Taking on health disparities by increasing research capacity

Clinical Research Pathways seeks to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, that wait by increasing research capacity in or near underserved communities. With help from partners including Morehouse College of Medicine, we are building a corps of minority physician researchers who can more quickly extend the benefits of research to patients, colleagues, and the community.

In private and group practices, hospitals and community health settings, these physician researchers will bring the skills, perspectives, and new knowledge that translate into better patient care. As trained clinical investigators, these physicians also will increase their patients’ participation in appropriate clinical trials.

Perhaps most important, over the long term these physician researchers will help reduce disparities in access to healthcare, quality of life, and longevity.

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