Does your doctor's race matter? It might for black men

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African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 4 percent of American physicians are black.

But does your doctor's race matter? Research shows it may, especially for black men, who are less likely to get preventive care, and die on average 4.5 years earlier than white men.

Dr. Louis Sullivan, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and President Emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, says although we should be comfortable seeing a physician of any race, that's not always the case.

"The reality today is people often feel more comfortable if the physician is like them," Dr. Sullivan said. "We see that among women. Many women prefer a female physician. In the same way, if someone is African-American, they might feel more comfortable with an African-American physician. If they're Latino, they might feel more comfortable there. The reason for that is they understand the culture, the language, the customs."

A 2018 study found that black men seen by black male doctors were more likely to agree to preventive health screenings, such as a blood-pressure check, than those who saw non-black doctors. The researchers followed 1,300 black men at an Oakland, California clinic, who were randomly assigned a black or non-black doctor.

They found those who saw a doctor of the same race were about 10 percent more likely to get a flu shot, 20 percent more likely to get screened for diabetes, and 26 percent more likely to agree to a cholesterol check, compared with the men who saw a non-black physician.

The men treated by a doctor of the same race were also more likely to bring up private issues, and ask for advice, than the men seeing a non-black doctor.

Sullivan believes the patient-doctor relationship relies on communication, trust, and a comfort level in the exam room.

"If you trust the physician, and feel he or she is not going to embarrass you when you give them private, sensitive information, then you'll be more forthcoming," Sullivan said.  "That helps the physician arrive at a correct diagnosis. So that is why diversity is so important in our workforce: because we're a diverse population."