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Rush, Mullin, Casey, Murkowski Introduce Bipartisan, Bicameral Legislation to Increase Diversity in Healthcare Workforce

May 19, 2021

77 percent of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology professions are Caucasian; Studies show improved patient outcomes with doctor of same racial or ethnic background

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Representatives Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), along with U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), announced the introduction of bipartisan, bicameral legislation to diversify America's healthcare workforce, specifically among five allied health professions severely lacking in racial and ethnic diversity. The Allied Health Workforce Diversity Act (H.R. 3320) would provide grant funding to colleges and universities to make physical therapy, occupational therapy, respiratory therapy, audiology, and speech-language pathology programs more accessible to underrepresented communities, including racial and ethnic minorities.

A 2017 report by the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) found that more than 77% of professionals in the physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology fields are Caucasian, while less than 5% of these professionals are Black and less than 7% are Hispanic. Respiratory therapists, who have provided lifesaving care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, are also overwhelmingly white — more than 70% of respiratory therapists identified as Caucasian, compared to 13% who identified as Black and 8% who identified as Hispanic, according to that same HRSA report.

The U.S. Institute of Medicine found that patients have better health outcomes when their doctor is of the same racial or ethnic background; however, given the dramatic underrepresentation of minorities in these positions, it is extremely difficult for patients of color to receive care from doctors of a similar racial or ethnic background.

"The lack of diversity in allied health fields is shocking — less than 5% of physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists are Black. This leaves many patients of color unable to find a provider from their same racial or ethnic background, potentially resulting in worse healthcare outcomes," said Representative Rush. "I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for their support on this important legislation, which would help create pathways to meaningful, high-paying jobs in the health sector and expand coverage to communities that need it most."

"Too often, minorities, people from disadvantaged communities, and those who live in rural areas don't have access to allied health services, like respiratory therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, and physical therapy," said Representative Mullin. "This legislation helps change that by incentivizing greater diversity in the allied health workforce. Increasing the number of providers who can provide culturally competent care will help improve health outcomes and result in higher quality care for patients."

"A diverse and well-trained health care workforce is essential to improving quality of care," said Senator Casey. "This legislation's investment in recruitment will diversify the health care workforce and contribute to better health care overall for all Americans."

"America's health care industry has long struggled to address health care provider shortages. Unfortunately, among the health care professionals we do have, Alaska Native populations are significantly underrepresented, including in the fields of respiratory therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech language pathology, and audiology," said Senator Murkowski. "By helping underrepresented groups, including Alaska Natives, become more involved in health care professions, we will help address workforce shortages in our communities and also ensure that care is culturally relevant. I appreciate Senator Casey for his leadership on this legislation and remain committed to creating a more robust health care workforce in Alaska."

Studies have shown that when people from underserved areas go into a medical field, they are far more likely to serve in rural and underserved areas, remain there longer, and have patients who better adhere to medical advice. This means that rural and other underserved areas benefit when programs recruit candidates from these areas, not only filling the gaps in service for underserved areas, but also filling gaps in provider shortages.

The Allied Health Workforce Diversity Act is modeled after the Title VIII Nursing Workforce Development program that has successfully increased the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities pursue careers in nursing. By providing colleges and universities funding to attract and retain students from underrepresented backgrounds, this legislation will bolster the number of minorities in the health profession workforce and correct the historic underrepresentation in these fields.

The text of the bill is available HERE. Congressman Rush introduced similar legislation (H.R. 3637), which passed the House of Representatives, last Congress.

The Allied Health Workforce Diversity Act is endorsed by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the American Academy of Physical Therapy (AAPT), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the American Academy of Audiology (AAA), American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), the Asian/ Pacific Occupational Therapy Association (APHOTA), the National Association of Black Physical Therapists (NABPT), National Black Occupational Therapy Coalition, Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity, Multicultural, Diversity, and Inclusion (MDI) Network, the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), the Pennsylvania Society of Respiratory Care, the American Physical Therapy Association Pennsylvania Chapter, the Alaska Society for Respiratory Care, the Alaska Physical Therapy Association, the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association, the Alaska Occupational Association, the University of Alaska Anchorage College of Health, the Creighton University & University of Alaska-Anchorage joint Occupational Therapy program, and the University of Pittsburgh-School of Occupational Therapy.

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Issues:Health Care