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The leadership gap for Asian American doctors


Asian American doctors are not a rare sight.

PETER YU: It's no secret that in Asian American culture, many children are encouraged to pursue a career in medicine. I know that my parents certainly did.

HUANG: But they don't appear often in the upper echelons of medicine. Several recent studies addressing the topic found that while Asian Americans are well-represented as physicians and researchers, very few continue up the ladder to senior positions like dean or department chair. This under-representation in leadership is something that's often overlooked since Asian Americans are so visibly present in medicine. But doctors I spoke with say that it's a result of bias and discrimination that needs to be called out. Dr. Peter Yu, a pediatric surgeon who practices at Children's Hospital of Orange County and at UC Irvine, did a study on the topic ten years ago.

YU: What we found was that Asian Americans, after they matriculated into medical school, after they finished their training, functioned as doctors, as boots on the ground, so to speak, but did not ascend to leadership positions.

HUANG: Yu found that there were zero Asian American medical school deans from 1997 to 2008, a period of more than a decade. The problem, he says, hasn't gotten much better since. Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician in Sacramento, California, says that he's seen it, and he's lived it throughout his career.

RICHARD PAN: I myself have experienced the same thing many of my Asian American colleagues have, which is when leadership positions open up, we are not often identified as people who should be considered for those leadership positions.

HUANG: I asked Pan why he thinks Asian Americans are often overlooked for leadership positions.

PAN: Certainly, there's a combination of factors. There are stereotypes of Asian Americans that hold us up as people who are hardworking and able but also say that we are not leaders, and we're not seen as leaders. And that's why Asian Americans are rarely encouraged to pursue leadership positions.

HUANG: Dr. Yu at UC Irvine says the lack of diversity in leadership has consequences.

YU: I mean, it comes down to, is diversity good? Generally speaking, I think that fields such as medicine, business, law, sports and so many other things, they really thrive when we have fresh new ideas, new perspectives, new thoughts, new approaches to all of the problems that we have to face.

HUANG: Yu says, of course, Asian Americans aren't the only ones underrepresented in some part of medicine. Black and Hispanic doctors and women physicians are broadly underrepresented in the fields. Dr. Pan in Sacramento says that bringing visibility to the gap is some kind of progress.

PAN: First of all, Asian Americans need to speak out about this problem. We cannot remain silent anymore. We need to be sure we're seen. We are underrepresented in medicine in leadership. In fact, we see this not only in medicine, but over and over again in tech and law and journalism. We see this repeatedly. And so we know it's a bigger issue than just medicine, and that needs to change.

HUANG: It's not clear how these changes will happen, but Pan and Yu both say that talking about the problem is a step. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
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Adam Raney