More Asian American Representation Needed in Leadership and Diversity Efforts in Academic Medicine

August 17, 2021

This article appeared originally on the Weill Cornell Medicine website.

National data indicate that about a fifth of medical students, practicing physicians, and medical school faculty members in the United States are Asian American. But that proportion shrinks at the top of medicine’s academic ranks, at a cost to individuals, institutions, and health care at large, according to new commentary by the deans of Weill Cornell Medicine and Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

photos of Anil K. Rustgi, MD, and Augustine M.K. Choi, MD, PhD
Anil K. Rustgi (left) and Augustine M.K. Choi. (Photos from Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicine)

At U.S. medical schools, only 9% of female department chairs and 11% of male department chairs are Asian American, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. In their commentary, published Aug. 17 in JAMA, Augustine M.K. Choi, MD, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine, and Anil K. Rustgi, MD, interim executive vice president and dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, argue that chronic barriers in career advancement can translate into less diversity and fewer mentors for Asian American students.

The authors note that reasons for this pattern of underrepresentation in leadership—also found in law, business, and technology—are unclear, but underrepresentation prevents both individuals and organizations from reaching their maximum potential. “Medical institutions should strive for equity at all career levels, recognizing that different forms of communication, cognition, and leadership style can be equally effective,” they write.

Asian American people generally face chronic and systemic challenges, the authors note. Even as many medical centers and organizations have been renewing their commitments to anti-racism and equity, Asian and Asian American people have been largely overlooked, Choi and Rustgi write.

Asian American workplaces and neighborhoods have meanwhile seen a surge in bigotry and violence stemming from xenophobic responses to COVID-19. Patient bias against Asian American health care workers is on the rise as well, media accounts and anecdotal evidence indicate, “ranging from microaggressions in the clinical setting to outright refusal of care,” the commentary reports.

The authors cite data from a 2019 AAMC-conducted survey of 6,000 U.S. physicians showing that even before the pandemic, 22.5% of respondents who identified as Asian American were dealing with intolerance.

Choi and Rustgi note that although Asian American people are often perceived as a monolithic minority, Asian Americans comprise more than 30 nationalities and ethnic groups and represent the most economically divided population in the United States.

In the commentary, they cite a recent study that found that cultural differences in assertiveness in interpersonal communication, not prejudice or motivation, could explain why some Asian Americans subgroups were more likely to attain leadership positions in the business world compared with some white individuals and other Asian American subgroups. “This type of subgroup analysis within medicine would be important to understand which Asian American ethnicities may be underrepresented at different career levels and which may be overrepresented,” the authors note.

To move forward, they endorse an approach that incorporates as many members of the medical community as possible in diversity and inclusion initiatives, and one that forges connections and emphasizes unity against systemic racism.

“Enhancing mentorship, career development, and skills training for talented individuals of all backgrounds should be a priority,” Choi and Rustgi write, “and will strengthen institutions, the biomedical workforce and health care at large.”


More information

The commentary, "Diversity in Leadership at Academic Medical Centers: Addressing Underrepresentation Among Asian American Faculty," was published Aug. 17 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.