By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
A new report shows that Blacks live a decade or so longer in areas with more Black primary care physicians.
This means consulting a Black doctor may mean you will live longer. In the first study to link a higher prevalence of Black doctors to longer Black life expectancy and lower mortality rates, the new report was recently published in JAMA and partially funded by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Office of Health Equity. Surprisingly, the new study found that life expectancy rates among poor Blacks were higher in counties with the highest rates of poverty because Black physicians are more likely to treat low-income, underinsured and Medicaid patients.
It means “a single Black physician in a county can have an impact on an entire population’s mortality,” said Monica Peek, a Johns Hopkins University grad who completed her residency at Stanford University Hospital, and now serves as a primary care physician and health equity researcher at UChicago Medicine.
Earlier reports, including a 2018 study have shown Black male patients were more likely to discuss healthcare problems with Black doctors. Meanwhile, a 2020 study found that even when Black and white doctors used the same words and communication style, Black patients were more receptive to surgical recommendations made by Black physicians. And a 2002 study of white, Black, Hispanic, and African-American patients found that each race and ethnicity reported the highest level of satisfaction with a provider from their same racial or ethnic background.
“It’s stunningly overwhelming,” said Peek, who was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in October 2022. “It validates what people in health equity have been saying about all the ways Black physicians are important, but to see the impact at the population level is astonishing.”
Researchers discovered that life expectancy increased by about one month for every 10 percent increase in Black primary care physicians after they set out to analyze the number of Black primary care physicians in the nation’s more than 3,000 counties in 2009, 2014, and 2019. But, researchers soon realized they would have to exclude over half of the nation’s counties due to the fact that these counties did not have a single Black primary care physician.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Rachel Upton, an HHS statistician and social science analyst, who was one of the report’s lead authors. “It shows having Black physicians is not only helpful across the board, but it’s particularly useful with counties with high poverty.”
Good communication explains the increased mortality rate. Black patients are more likely to talk with Black doctors about subjects like upcoming birthday parties or weddings. They are also more likely to invite them to the events.
Another factor, said Peek, is that Black physicians are more likely to provide expertise to community organizations, engage in political events, and advocate for public health.
Peek said many Blacks approach her after she speaks at a local church and ask her opinion because they don’t trust their own medical team. “I look like them,” Peek said. “They trust I have their best interest at heart.”