Less than 6 percent of American Indians, Blacks and Hispanics collectively are physicians or dentists.
Problem: Less than 6 percent of American Indians, Blacks and Hispanic collectively are physicians and dentists (Association of American Medical Colleges). Why is this a problem? Most often, preparation for medical school is expensive and intimidating to disadvantaged students, thus making them reluctant to pursue medicine. With fewer diverse health care providers treating an increasingly diverse U.S. population, it is questionable whether tomorrow's patients will receive culturally competent care.
Solution: Several tools are now creating more accessible paths of opportunity for disadvantaged students, including a free, six-week summer medical preparatory program for college freshman and sophomores and a "jewel" known as MCAT Pearls, to help break down barriers and open doors.
How do you encourage disadvantaged students to clear certain barriers to a bright future? Sometimes the roadblocks seem insurmountable, compounded by isolation and anxiety about succeeding. If you’re Alfa Diallo, you answer the challenge by writing a book, and creating a path paved with jewels of knowledge for others to follow.
Diallo is a first generation American. The son of a German mother and Guinean father, the 34-year-old emergency room physician learned early that “success is based on access to resources.” Diallo’s parents, both health care professionals, paid for courses to prepare him for the medical school entrance exam but, for many of his peers, lack of time and money are major impediments to mastering the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
“The system didn’t seem fair,” says Diallo. “How can students who are working full time and surviving on student loans eke out the resources to pay for and attend a prep class?” The courses, ranging in price from $1,000-$1,500, also require intensive class and study time, heaped onto an already crowded schedule of working students.
Diallo stacked the deck to better prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter medical school. What began as a project to create an MCAT study guide, soon evolved into a free, open source manual released in 2004. Diallo called it MCAT Pearls: A Tool to Break Down Barriers and Open Access.
A University of Virginia alumnus (both undergraduate and medical school), Diallo explains he worked “extra hard” at the predominately white campus. He was one of 14 students of color within the university’s medical school class, although the university worked to increase the representation of minority groups.
At the same time his book was evolving, Diallo found a mechanism to connect the dots through mentorship as a teaching assistant for the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), a free six-week program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that provides college freshman and sophomores from disadvantaged backgrounds with an intensive enrichment and preparatory program for careers in medicine and dentistry. He served three years as a teacher for MMEP/SMDEP classes from 2001-2003.
Diallo notes that SMDEP and his MCAT Pearls both open doors to expanded opportunity for students who might otherwise feel alone.
The program, which includes room and board and intensive classes in science, math and laboratory research, is currently accepting applications for its 2013 summer class.
The 504-page compendium includes charts, illustrations and text that are a playbook to navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of MCAT. In 2011, the Student Doctor Network, a nonprofit, education resource website for health professional students, adopted MCAT Pearls as their “official MCAT guide.” A self-funded project, Diallo has chosen not to financially profit from MCAT Pearls.
“I want it to always be a tool without a monetary charge, because that’s the root of the project,” he said.
Diallo recognizes an upside to his educational experience and urges other students of color to venture outside of their “comfort zones” for exposure to varying traditions and experiences. Cultural competency is critical to any health care professional treating today’s diverse populations.
Current trends in the health care workforce point to the need for sustained recruitment to yield a more diverse pool of candidates in medical and dental schools. While minorities represent 26 percent of the U.S. population, less than 6 percent of American Indians, Blacks and Hispanics collectively are physicians or dentists, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
SMDEP 2013 Summer Class recruitment will continue through February 29, 2013. In addition to the UVA site, the program operates at 11 other locations:
- Case Western Reserve University(Cleveland, Ohio)
- Columbia University(New York, N.Y.)
- Duke University (Durham, N.C.)
- Howard University (Washington, D.C.)
- University of California-Los Angeles(Los Angeles, Calif.)
- UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical and New Jersey Dental(Newark, N.J.)
- University of Louisville(Louisville, Ky.)
- University of Nebraska (Omaha, Neb.)
- University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.)
- University of Washington (Seattle, Wash.)
- University of Texas-Houston (Houston, Texas)
- Yale University (New Haven, Conn.)
For more information about SMDEP or to apply for the summer program, visit www.smdep.org