University of Virginia School of Medicine Bridges Gap for Minorities in Healthcare Via Support, Research

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With a shortage of minorities in the medical field, it’s no wonder the perception is that most doctors are white. However, the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine is working to address this disparity one program at a time — and has been seeing results.

The UVA School of Medicine has exceeded the national average for minority enrollment for the past five years, according to Leah Beard, community outreach manager in the School of Medicine’s Office for Diversity.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, 46 percent of full-time students identified as female and 54 percent as male. Furthermore, according to Beard, 8 percent are African American, 10 percent Hispanic and Latino, 20 percent Asian American, and 15 percent multiracial.

[Above: Prospective students on the University of Virginia Health System’s helipad during a campus tour]

“Our diversity survey monitors gender, ethnicity, and race among our students and faculty,” Beard says, “and we are going to expand that survey to also identify sexual orientation, veteran status, and students with disabilities.”

The medical school’s pipeline programs may be the reason behind its diverse enrollment — specifically, the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) and the Summer Research Internship Program (SRIP), which are designed to encourage minority undergraduates to pursue medicine.

“All students can apply, but we target Latino, African American, and female students who are considering becoming doctors, as well as those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Beard.

The SMDEP aims to increase the number of culturally competent healthcare providers. This six-week program includes a clinical lecture series through which students learn about the medical field, as well as health disparities facing racial minorities. Each student works with a mentor to discuss career goals and the medical school admission process.

“They then learn to address these health disparities, along with the importance of physicians having cross-cultural understanding to more effectively treat patients,” Beard says.

The SRIP is for students who want to conduct medical research in labs, rather than treat patients, and internship opportunities are open to qualified undergraduates who are considering a career in biomedical research. The program targets, but is not limited to, racially and ethnically diverse students in their junior and senior years. Interns receive an eight-week living stipend to work with mentors in a lab researching topics of their choice.

“Interns can pick anything from stem cell research to chronic illnesses found among marginalized racial groups,” Beard says.

Beyond educating and supporting underrepresented minority students, UVA School of Medicine also encourages and supports faculty research on minorities and the health disparities they face.

Students with Dr. Bradley W. Kesser (top right) in the Department of Neurology at UVA School of Medicine
Students with Dr. Bradley W. Kesser (top right) in the Department of Neurology at UVA School of Medicine

The annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award, presented through the UVA Health System, recognizes one faculty or staff member each year who embodies King’s values and teachings in cultural competence, healthcare disparities, and fostering an environment of inclusiveness — in accordance with the UVA Health System’s mission and values.

Joel Anderson, a nursing fellow at UVA, received the award this year. His research focuses on the prevalence of dementia among Latinos and African Americans in the United States.

“My colleagues and I not only want to discover why Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately affected [by dementia] compared to their white counterparts, but also research the psychosocial impact among racial and ethnic minority families that care for loved ones with dementia,” says Anderson.

Right now, he says that he and his team are analyzing data related to caregiver burden, family quality of life, family resources, and surrogate decision-making. The purpose of this research is to examine potential differences between Caucasian and African American caregivers of dementia patients.

Fostering Diverse Physicians
In order to keep minority students engaged, the School of Medicine hosts chapters of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and the Student National Medical Association (SNMA).

“UVA’s Latino Medical Student Association is devoted to meeting the unique interests and needs of Latino medical students,” says Judy Pointer, program manager in the School of Medicine’s Office for Diversity.

The LMSA promotes health outreach to Spanish-speaking patients, helps students become approved for interpreting services, raises awareness about Latino health issues, and creates a sense of community among Latin American medical students. Pointer says that the LMSA also works to address health disparities in the Latino community by working with other student organizations to boost medical school enrollment among Latinos.

The SNMA, established in 1964, is the longest-running national independent student-run organization dedicated to minority medical students, and according to Pointer, most members are African American. At UVA School of Medicine, SNMA members work to introduce young people to science and are committed to increasing cultural sensitivity and competency in physicians.

“SNMA members serve as mentors for students from elementary school through college, improving the pipeline … all the way to medical school,” Pointer says.

Over the last year, the Office for Diversity has undergone rebranding, one result of which is an increased focus on pipeline programs around diversity. According to Pointer, the office is now looking to hire recruiters focused on diversity, as well as implement bias training.

“We are in the middle of developing programming where our medical students, faculty, and staff can discover their unconscious biases, because learning this is the key to becoming culturally competent physicians,” Pointer says.

Beard, who implements marketing initiatives for the diversity office, says staff members are also conducting outreach at local elementary, middle, and high schools. Through health fairs and poster presentations, the Office for Diversity encourages children to tour UVA and learn about its STEM degree programs.

“We must teach minority children that there is indeed a way to get into medicine,” she says. “There is a barrier between the school and the community, and by going out to schools, [that] wall is broken down.”●

Mrinal Gokhale is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. University of Virginia School of Medicine is a 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.