Affirmative Action in Medical Education: Meeting Market Demands and Cultivating Empathetic Doctors

By Shereese Maynard

There’s no way around it; affirmative action is a contentious topic, especially in areas of higher education. In the realm of medical education, affirmative action emerges as an even more pressing concern. The medical field isn’t just about understanding the complexities of the human body; it’s about understanding the complexities of the human spirit. The market now demands academically sound physicians and those who resonate with our society’s multicultural fabric. Let’s delve into some misconceptions about affirmative action, emphasize the need for a shift in admissions criteria, and stress the imperative of diversifying admission committees.

Debunking Affirmative Action Myths

Firstly, let’s clear the air about a major misconception: Affirmative action isn’t about favoring one group over another. The policies are about leveling the playing field, recognizing systemic disadvantages, and offering equal opportunities to all aspiring candidates, regardless of their background. According to Cornell, affirmative action is a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination. Affirmative action, especially in medical education, is not an attack on merit; instead, it recognizes that standardized test scores don’t solely define merit.

Rethinking Admissions: Beyond MCAT Scores

So next is the question of admissions criteria. The MCAT has been a looming checkpoint for med school hopefuls for years. However, high MCAT scores aren’t the sole predictors of future doctors’ success. A quote from Hammond and Sabet (2022) provides a noteworthy observation, “Seats at the top medical schools often require 99th percentile scores, though the median MCAT score for White med school matriculants is the 83rd percentile (512.6).” Such statistics open the floor to discussions about race neutrality in admissions.

While high scores indicate academic prowess, they don’t indicate characteristics like empathy, resilience, or communication – crucial traits for a medical professional. Medical schools must reconsider what they value in a potential student. Is it just the ability to score well on a test, or is it a holistic blend of academic achievement and personal qualities that make one fit to serve diverse communities? There’s also the issue of cultural competency in medicine. Cultural competency is the ability of doctors and organizations to effectively deliver care that meets patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs (

The White Male Standard: Legacy and its Implications

Legacy admissions, prevalent in many top-tier institutions, often perpetuate cycles of privilege, frequently favoring white male applicants. Such programs operate counter to the goals of diversity, inclusion, and broader representation in the medical field. With an ever-diversifying patient demographic, the persistence of such admissions practices raises eyebrows. Simply put, if there’s an oversaturation of white and Asian male doctors in the market, is it pragmatic to keep fueling the legacy preferences?

The Need to Diversify Admissions Committees

Diverse teams make better decisions. This statement rings true even in the context of admissions committees. Diversity in these committees ensures varied perspectives, mitigates implicit biases, and underscores the importance of holistic admissions. If we aim to produce doctors who mirror the rich tapestry of the communities they serve, it starts with ensuring that the gatekeepers – the admissions committees – reflect similar diversity. And it seems that medical school administrators are aware of this problem. A 2023 JAMA Network study by Michelle Ko, MD, PhD1, et al. found that “Embedded processes and structures of institutional racism hindered efforts to increase diversity in admissions.” This finding is unsurprising, yet there appears to be minimal effort to correct the deficient processes. Ko writes, “Barriers to advancing racial and ethnic diversity include a lack of leadership commitment; pressure from faculty and administrators to overemphasize academic scores and school rankings; and political and social influences, such as donors and alumni.”

The journey to becoming a medical professional is long and arduous. As institutions continue to shape the future of medical education, they must consider not just who can withstand its rigor but who can best serve our society – all of society. Affirmative action, redefined admissions criteria, and diverse committees are steps toward this vision. If we are to do away with affirmative action, we must replace it with accountability and resolve to answer the call of society’s needs and demands. It’s time to redefine what makes a “good” doctor – not just in terms of academic excellence but empathy, understanding, and the ability to serve diverse communities.

Resources for this article

  1. (Hammond and Sabet -Washington Post, 2022)
  4. Ko M, Henderson MC, Fancher TL, London MR, Simon M, Hardeman RR. US Medical School Admissions Leaders’ Experiences With Barriers to and Advancements in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(2): e2254928. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.54928


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