Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine Improves Access to Healthcare and Careers

By  - 

Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

Diversity and inclusion are at the core of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s (PCOM) twofold mission to produce well-rounded medical professionals of varying backgrounds and identities who go on to practice in underserved and underrepresented communities. More than graduating diverse healthcare providers, PCOM works to develop the next generation of physicians dedicated to practicing in areas where they are most needed.

[Above: Evans Hall at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine]

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in 2013, only 4.1 percent of U.S. physicians were African American, 4.4 percent were Hispanic, and 0.4 were Native American. While these numbers are discouraging, their effects are even more so. The AAMC predicts that by 2025 the U.S. will be short nearly 90,000 doctors, especially in low-income neighborhoods and those with large minority populations — areas in which many minority physicians choose to serve.

According to a report published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA Internal Medicine, in 2010, minority doctors cared for nearly 54 percent of minority and 70 percent of non-English-speaking patients in the U.S.

By working to increase access to health professions for underrepresented groups, PCOM — with a campus in Philadelphia, Pa., and Suwanee, Ga. — is doing its part to address these disparities and increase care in underserved communities.

PCOM's campus in Philadelphia
PCOM’s campus in Philadelphia

The college’s latest initiative, the PCOM Opportunity Academy: STEM-Health Professions Pipeline Development Program — also referred to as PCOM Opps — is aimed at creating a streamlined path for young people from low-income neighborhoods with large minority populations to careers in healthcare. Launching July 5, the program will introduce participants to STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) disciplines throughout their high school experience, with the goal of inspiring them to pursue careers in medicine and providing them with a strong knowledge base.

“Our goal is to have a pipeline program — which incorporates tracking — that fosters career development from the earliest stages and provides support to inspire students to reach greater horizons,” says Denah Appelt, PhD, professor of neuroscience, physiology, and pharmacology in the department of biomedical sciences at PCOM. “Being in this program will empower students.”

PCOM Opps, funded annually by the college’s Office of Diversity and Compliance, is specifically designed to increase the representation of Hispanics, African Americans, and other underrepresented minorities in healthcare. Chief Diversity Officer for the college Lisa McBride, PhD, says the idea for the program was sparked by the low number of Hispanic students at PCOM.

Lisa McBride
Lisa McBride

“We want to increase [the Hispanic] population at PCOM, and this program better exposes them to osteopathic medicine,” she says. “Eighteen million Americans are Hispanic, and only 4 percent are doctors; we have a lot of work to do, and this will help.”

Through the program, PCOM faculty, students, and admissions staff — along with McBride — will work to engage elementary students from selected schools within the Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania and Esperanza Inc. school systems via classroom visits and discussions to get them excited about science and medicine.

Aspira is a system of charter schools that focuses on educating Hispanic and African American students; it has a total of 1,800 students, of which 57 percent are Hispanic and 37 percent are African American. Esperanza, which is 90 percent Hispanic and African American, is a network of schools that includes elementary and high schools, as well as a fully accredited two-year associate degree branch of Eastern University. PCOM’s decision to partner with Aspira and Esperanza on PCOM Opps was strategic.

“The intent was to select school systems that have a diverse enrollment of students from low socioeconomic families,” Appelt says.

Although recruitment begins at the elementary school level, students don’t actually enter the program until the summer before their freshman year of high school.

Guidance counselors and teachers from Aspira and Esperanza schools will engage with their respective students to determine who is most interested in the STEMM fields and who they believe would be a good match for the program. Once they have an idea of who these students are, they will meet with individual parents to discuss whether their children have the ambition, interest, and desire needed to succeed in the intense four-year program. After this step, students must fill out an application and be interviewed prior to being admitted.

PCOM faculty work with high school students from the Esperanza school system as part of the PCOM Opps program.
PCOM faculty work with high school students from the Esperanza school system as part of the PCOM Opps program.

All students are able to apply; however, Appelt says the application process is intended to identify students who are most likely to succeed, who demonstrate perseverance and drive, and who have a strong interest in the STEMM fields.

“The program will provide students the academic and life skills, along with guidance and support, to enter into programs for critical health careers,” she says.

PCOM Opps spans students’ entire high school career, and they are expected to complete bi-monthly assignments throughout each academic year. The program is meant to amplify the regular STEMM curriculum to better prepare them for postsecondary studies in those fields, allowing them to learn more advanced information at a faster pace. Added coursework will cover brain functionality, obesity, healthy eating, and health disparities.

Participants will also be assigned interactive activities to be completed in an online portal. For example, PCOM designed an interactive brain that students must “build” to learn how different areas operate. Additionally, everyone must participate in a five-week summer program.

McBride says the summer session — during which students in grades nine through 11 will undergo advanced training in STEMM subject areas — is the cornerstone of PCOM Opps. Specific programming includes accelerated courses and social, cultural, and academic activities related to neurological disorders and infectious diseases. Students will also go on field trips to the Franklin Institute — a local science museum — and conduct projects on PCOM’s campus, introducing them early on to higher education.

Also during the summer, participants in grade 12 will have the option of attending labs at PCOM or clinical internships designed to expose them to research and analytical methods and provide hands-on experience in the medical field.

McBride says the goal of the summer session is to make students culturally competent — by working with people of all backgrounds — as well as academically inclined.

Lisa McBride (third from right) accepts the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT publisher Lenore Pearlstein (third from left) during a ceremony at the college.
Lisa McBride (third from right) accepts the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT publisher Lenore Pearlstein (third from left) during a ceremony at the college.

Once students graduate from high school, PCOM’s hands-on work with them concludes. However, McBride says the school will continue to track their progress through their undergraduate and graduate studies via partnerships with a handful of local institutions; these include Esperanza College, University of Delaware, University of the Sciences, Temple University, and Villanova University, to name a few. Students are encouraged to earn degrees in STEMM disciplines from any one of these schools.

Through these partnerships, PCOM will monitor whether students persist to graduate with a healthcare-related degree. With this information, PCOM will be able to analyze the program’s effectiveness.

“This is a long-term commitment into the future,” McBride says. “We’ve identified a specific need. Whether it’s North Philly or any other area, there is a need for STEMM-focused development early in a high school student’s career.”

While PCOM Opps graduates are encouraged to pursue their graduate studies at PCOM, they are free to go anywhere they want.

Improving Knowledge and Practice
PCOM also works hard to support members of the LGBTQ community on campus.

This year, the college hosted its first-ever annual Transgender Medicine Symposium in April — a movement toward improving the inclusion of the transgender community in medical fields and increasing understanding around its healthcare needs.

“There is no continuity of care for transgender [individuals],” McBride says. “They go unnoticed or are ignored by the healthcare system.”

She says that PCOM has had several students who were transitioning and many others who identify as gender neutral, and she was determined to ensure these students felt welcome on campus. She also felt it was important to provide in-depth knowledge to these individuals on how to find proper medical care, as well as information to providers on how to treat them — to help overcome the lingering stigma associated with transgender people.

Students participate in PCOM’s Physician Scientist Training Program, which targets gifted young people — in seventh grade through college — who are from groups that are historically underrepresented in the medical professions.
Students participate in PCOM’s Physician Scientist Training Program, which targets gifted young people — in seventh grade through college — who are from groups that are historically underrepresented in the medical professions.

According to McBride, transgender people often fear being humiliated, ostracized, misunderstood, or discriminated against in healthcare settings, which keeps many from seeking medical care. This can lead to debilitating depression and seeking out unsafe backdoor treatments.

“Fifty-four percent of trans youth have attempted suicide,” says McBride. “You also have cases of homelessness and trans people buying hormones illegally or turning to the Internet, all because they’ve experienced horrible discrimination within the healthcare system.”

The symposium — executed through open dialogue and an interactive panel — was aimed at shedding light on the struggles faced by the trans community and educating participants on how to treat and interact with trans patients fairly. Medical professionals from across the nation came together to discuss effective ways to treat this emerging community effectively and compassionately.

“It’s not appropriate to just [provide] knowledge of this population and the percentages that go along with it,” McBride says. “We must also tell [healthcare providers] how to create welcoming offices.”

McBride says she was thrilled with the symposium’s turnout and is hopeful that next year’s event will be even more informative and will include advanced primary care training.

Safe Spaces
Beyond providing opportunities for dialogue, PCOM is also ensuring that trans students and others feel safe and accepted for who they are on campus. To do so, the school worked with the Gay Alliance to adopt the organization’s Safe Zone training program. Through Safe Zone, students and faculty — members of the LGBTQ community and their allies — undergo coaching meant to develop, enhance, and maintain a secure and supportive campus environment for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff.

“Safe Zone gave me the opportunity to share my story and hear stories from many perspectives, and it started some of the first campus-wide empathetic conversations [around] LGBTQ medicine and life,” says Kolby Nelson, a second-year medical student at PCOM.

Since PCOM began offering the four-hour training in March of last year, it has provided a platform for expression and sharing that didn’t exist before. Nelson says he now feels comfortable speaking with administrators and faculty about his life as a gay student. He believes that educating students, faculty, and staff on the rights and fair treatment of LGBTQ individuals has created a more understanding campus community.

“Much of the discrimination I experienced was due to ignorance,” Nelson says. “Those who complete the Safe Zone training will leave more informed and comfortable discussing queer health.”

PCOM also offers the Train the Trainer program, giving anyone interested in becoming a certified Safe Zone trainer the opportunity to do so through a day-long workshop, after which they will be able to lead sessions. The college now boasts an impressive list of students, faculty, and staff who are able to perform Safe Zone trainings.

“I was excited to learn PCOM was hosting this program, allowing participants like myself to lead Safe Zone certification courses on campus,” Nelson says. “I feel confident saying that PCOM is training healthcare providers in a campus-wide effort to provide better care to the [LGBTQ] community.”

Through its combined effort to recruit and support students from a range of races and ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations and identities, PCOM is not only preparing underrepresented students for careers in medicine, but also helping increase access to care for those who need it most.●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine is a 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient. Lisa McBride is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.