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At top hospitals, department chiefs still overwhelmingly white, male

Brigham and Women’s Hospital removed 31 portraits (above) of former department chairs from the walls of the hospital’s amphitheater.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2018/Globe Staff

Last month, Brigham and Women’s Hospital removed 31 portraits (above) of former department chairs from the walls of the hospital’s amphitheater. They were all of men; 30 were white and one was Chinese. The hospital’s president, Dr. Betsy Nabel, said the gold-framed paintings did not reflect the current makeup of residents, staff, and surrounding neighborhoods.

But the lack of diversity is not just history. It’s also very much the present at Boston’s academic medical centers, a Globe survey found. Eighty percent of 103 clinical department heads — the doctors who oversee specialties such as surgery, medicine, obstetrics, and psychiatry — at the city’s six major teaching hospitals are men, according to data provided by the hospitals. Nearly 90 percent are white.


For blacks and Hispanics — there are three and four leading departments, respectively — the pipeline is tiny. Less than 5 percent of doctors in the United States are black or Hispanic, and the number is even smaller in Boston.

Dr. O’Neil Britton, chief medical officer at Massachusetts General Hospital and a black physician, said change “will evolve more slowly than it should’’ in part because it involves providing black and Hispanic children with more opportunities and incentives to go into medicine.

Also, blacks in particular don’t always feel Boston is welcoming. And because there are so few of them, black and Hispanic doctors are tapped repeatedly to increase the diversity of hospital committees, leaving them less time for the research needed to get promotions.

The lack of women and Asians in leadership positions is notable, since the two groups make up a larger percentage of doctors overall. Woman make up 34 percent of physicians, and that number is climbing as more women enroll in medical school. About 13 percent of doctors are Asian.

Hospitals executives said they are working to hire more women and minorities to lead departments, because it will lead to a more welcoming environment and ultimately better for care for patients. Boston Medical Center, for example, trains search committee members in how to best recruit minority candidates, and hires search firms that have strong diversity records.


Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by Tufts Medical Center, an earlier version of this story and an accompanying graphic misstated the diversity of the hospital’s department chiefs. At Tufts, 17 of 20 department heads are white, not 18 of 20 as the hospital originally stated. One department head is black, one is Hispanic and one is Asian. That means that citywide, at all the major teaching hospitals, there are three black physicians leading departments, rather than two as originally written.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.