Skin of Color

The Leaky Pipeline: A Narrative Review of Diversity in Dermatology

In Collaboration With the Skin of Color Society

Author and Disclosure Information

Dermatology remains the second least diverse specialty in medicine. This lack of diversity has important implications for the future of the specialty. This narrative review provides updated evidence on barriers at different stages of medical education training that impede academic advancement for underrepresented minority (URM) learners pursuing careers in dermatology.

Practice Points

  • Dermatology remains the second least diverse specialty in medicine, which has important implications for the workforce and clinical excellence of the specialty.
  • Barriers presenting at different stages of medical education and training result in the loss of underrepresented minority (URM) learners pursuing or advancing careers in dermatology.
  • Understanding these barriers is the first step to creating and implementing important structural changes to the way we mentor, teach, and support URM students in the specialty.



With a majority-minority population expected in the United States by 2044, improving diversity and cultural competency in the dermatology workforce is now more important than ever. A more diverse workforce increases the cultural competence of all providers, provides greater opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship of underrepresented minority (URM) trainees, establishes a more inclusive environment for learners, and enhances the knowledge and productivity of the workforce.1-3 Additionally, it is imperative to address clinical care disparities seen in minority patients in dermatology, including treatment of skin cancer, psoriasis, acne, atopic dermatitis, and other diseases.4-7

Despite the attention that has been devoted to improving diversity in medicine,8-10 dermatology remains one of the least diverse specialties, prompting additional calls to action within the field.11 Why does the lack of diversity still exist in dermatology, and what is the path to correcting this problem? In this article, we review the evidence of diversity barriers at different stages of medical education training that may impede academic advancement for minority learners pursuing careers in dermatology.

Undergraduate Medical Education

The term leaky pipeline refers to the progressive decline in the number of URMs along a given career path, including in dermatology. The Association of American Medical Colleges defines URMs as racial/ethnic populations that are “underrepresented in the medical profession relative to their numbers in the general population.”9 The first leak in the pipeline is that URMs are not applying to medical school. From 2002 and 2017, rates of both application and matriculation to medical school were lower by 30% to 70% in URM groups compared to White students, including Hispanic, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native students.12,13 The decision not to apply to medical school was greater in URM undergraduate students irrespective of scholastic ability as measured by SAT scores.14

A striking statistic is that the number of Black men matriculating into medical school in 2014 was less than it was in 1978 despite the increase in the number of US medical schools and efforts to recruit more diverse student populations. The Association of American Medical Colleges identified potential reasons for this decline, including poor early education, lack of mentorship, negative perceptions of Black men due to racial stereotypes, and lack of financial and academic resources to support the application process.8,13,15-17 Implicit racial bias by admission committees also may play a role.

Medical School Matriculation and Applying to Dermatology Residency

There is greater representation of URM students in medical school than in dermatology residency, which means URM students are either not applying to dermatology programs or they are not matching into the specialty. In the Electronic Residency Application Service’s 2016-2017 application cycle (N=776), there were 76 (9.8%) URM dermatology residency applicants.18 In 2018, there was a notable decline in representation of Black students among residency applicants (4.9%) to matched residents (3.7%), and there were only 133 (9.3%) URM dermatology residents in total (PGY2-PGY4 classes).19 The lack of exposure to medical subspecialties and the recommendation by medical schools for URM medical students to pursue careers in primary care have been cited as reasons that these students may not apply to residency programs in specialty care.20,21 The presence of an Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education dermatology residency program, fellowships, and dermatology interest groups at their medical schools correlated with higher proportions of URM students applying to dermatology programs.20

Underrepresented minority students face critical challenges during medical school, including receiving lower grades in both standardized and school-designated assessments and clerkship grades.21,22 A 2019 National Board of Medical Examiners study found that Hispanic and Black test takers scored 12.1 and 16.6 points lower than White men, respectively, on the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1.23 Black and Asian students also were less likely than White students to be selected as members of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society (AΩA), even after accounting for USMLE Step 1 scores, research productivity, community service, leadership, and Gold Humanism Honor Society membership.24 Taken together, the emphasis on clinical grades, USMLE scores, and AΩA status as recruitment and selection criteria likely deters URM students from applying to and may preclude them from successfully matching into highly selective specialties such as dermatology.25

A recent cross-sectional study showed that lack of equitable resources, lack of support, financial constrictions, and lack of group identity were 4 barriers to URM students matching into dermatology.26 Dermatology is a competitive specialty with the highest median Electronic Residency Application Service applications submitted per US applicant (n=90)27 and an approximate total cost per US applicant of $10,781.28,29 Disadvantaged URM applicants noted relying on loans while non-URM applicants cited family financial support as being beneficial.26 In addition, an increasing number of applicants take gap years for research, which pose additional costs for finances and resources. In contrast, mentorship and participation in pipeline/enrichment programs were factors associated with URM students matching into dermatology.26


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