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By Shamard Charles, M.D.
Blacks and Latinos make up more than 30 percent of the U.S. population, but only 10.3 percent of medical school graduates, a number that hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It’s a stark reminder that even though the U.S. population is becoming more diverse, medicine isn’t.
Now, universities and community organizations around the country are working together to reverse this trend.
One effort is the Northwestern Medicine Scholars Program at Westinghouse College Prep, a public high school in Chicago. Founded in 2011 by Dr. Erica Marsh, formerly at Northwestern and now an OB-GYN at the University of Michigan, the partnership offers Westinghouse students a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of doctors and scientists by providing mentoring with physicians and researchers, intensive summer and test prep courses, and college entrance support. The only requirements are a 3.2 GPA and a genuine desire to pursue math or science studies.
The Northwestern scholars program is run by Dr. Robert Yancy, vice dean for diversity and inclusion and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“These young people are from families that have very limited economic means, yet we are extracting and providing them with a different kind of experience that says, ‘No, you can do this,’ ” Yancy told NBC News.
And the students seem to be heeding the message.
Sixty students have been Northwestern Medicine scholars, all chosen in ninth grade. So far, all of the scholars have graduated from high school and nearly 100 percent have gone on to college — one student pursued an associate’s degree in nursing and now works at Northwestern Medical Hospital — with all the college-bound students receiving significant scholarship assistance, Yancy said. Among the colleges attended by the program’s graduates are the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.
Sixty percent of the scholars pursue science, technology, engineering or math majors in college; are in premed tracks; or are in health care-related fields, such as nursing, said Janet Rocha, an assistant professor of medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
Most of the scholars chosen are from struggling families with no tradition of higher education, Yancy said. “What is most remarkable is that 60 percent of the students receive school lunch assistance — an index of socioeconomic stress — and 80 percent are from college-naïve families,” said Yancy.
“We have effectively developed a pipeline program that attracts a diverse group,” he continued. “If only one student makes it through high school, attends college, graduates, seeks a professional degree and then returns home to serve as a role model, then our program has been successful.”
Other academic organizations, like the Associated Medical Schools of New York, also run diversity programs aimed at increasing the number of minority students in medical school. One way is to lower financial barriers — the average debt for a medical school graduate is approaching $200,000, the group says, putting medical school out of reach for many minorities.
On Wednesday, the New York group, which represents all 16 public and private medical schools in the state, urged the state Legislature to increase funding for the group’s Diversity in Medicine scholarship program to $1 million, to cover one year of medical school tuition for 20 students. Scholarship winners must agree to work in underserved areas of the state after completing their education.
“We are specifically targeting black and Latino kids to increase ethnic diversity in medical schools,” Jaime Williams, a spokeswoman for the organization, told NBC News on Friday.
This year, the inaugural class of Northwestern scholars will graduate from college. Of the six students in the class, four are pursuing graduate degrees — two are going to medical school and the others are seeking master’s degrees in public health and health administration, Yancy said.
Braxton Jenkins, 19, a student at Valparaiso University in Indiana, says the scholars program changed his life.
“It was the best part of high school. They provided me with a network and an environment that encourages students to enter STEM fields,” said Jenkins, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “It just really makes a difference. I’m in college and those memories motivate me and I cannot be more grateful for them.”
Jenkins, who grew up on the west side of Chicago, says the program is successful because it provides unique experiences like the opportunity to participate in scientific research, along with discussions on implicit bias and microaggression and its effect on people.
“We had candid discussions about what it would be like being a person of color in college,” said Jenkins, who is black. “That really prepares you for anything. Currently, I want to study solar panels and energy, but I keep medicine in the back of my mind.”
Yancy said he hopes that programs like Northwestern’s become a national model for scholastic excellence for underrepresented populations, especially in light of a 2016 Association of American Medical Colleges report that showed a marked decrease in the number of African-American medical students, particularly black men, across the country from 1978 to 2014.
From 1978 to 2015, 78.6 percent of graduates of U.S. medical schools were white or Asian, the report said. Blacks, American Indians and Hispanics together made up the remaining 21.4 percent.
Black doctors are better equipped to advocate for black patients because of their shared cultural experiences, said Dr. Dale Okorodudu, president and founder of DiverseMedicine, a web-based mentoring organization.
“America needs more black doctors so they can have a choice, but also to have more access to providers who are culturally connected to them — who understand their lives and their challenges as much as their clinical needs,” said Okorodudu, who is also founder of Black Men in White Coats, which hosted its first youth summit a little more than a week ago in Dallas.
“And young people need to see doctors too,” he added. “If you have a vision of what you want to be in life it keeps you on track.”
Racial disparities exist throughout medicine. One of the most severe is the racial disparity in U.S. maternal mortality rates for black women. Each year in the United States, about 700 women die as a result of pregnancy or delivery issues, while 50,000 experience severe complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes nationwide; in New York City, they are 12 times more likely to die.
“Disparities can be narrowed with more cultural competency — that is, being open, understanding and willing to explain,” Dr. Otis Brawley, professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview.
“It’s not that the drugs don’t work in blacks or simply that we don’t have enough blacks in clinical research, it’s that black people often don’t get the drugs or adequate treatment to overcome disparities.”
Experts believe that adding more black scientists and doctors to the pipeline is one way to narrow racial disparities in medicine. Studies have shown not only that black professionals return to their communities to help later in their careers more often than white professionals do, but also that black patients are far more likely to agree to certain preventive health tests if they discussed them with a black doctor.
“We live in a world that is changing,” said Yancy. “Within one to two decades there will no longer be a majority population. If we are to serve the entirety of the U.S. population, we need to evolve a workforce that resembles the population and enables best care for everyone.”
“The task is daunting, but the opportunities are there when all the very best thoughts and ideas are considered, from wherever or whomever they originate.”