The University of Michigan Medical School attracts the best and brightest students from across the country even the world. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that when you look at the medical school students, trainees and faculty there doesn’t seem to be a lot of racial diversity.
To be fair it’s not just a Michigan problem, but a national one. While Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, just 6 percent of today’s practicing physicians are Black. The numbers are not much better for Hispanic Americans.
The reasons are varied, but I think part of the problem is we have not done a good enough job of finding, recruiting and preparing Black and Hispanic students for medical school.
The University of Michigan Medical School’s Doctors of Tomorrow program was born out of a desire to change the face of medicine by recruiting and nurturing high-achieving students and changing the view of the state’s most populous city. Black and Hispanic ninth grade students from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School are provided mentorship and tools for success for a career in science and medicine through hands-on activities and discussions at the U-M Medical School. The monthly visits are designed to give them a sense of what it’s like to be a doctor.
On their first trip to Ann Arbor I was brimming with enthusiasm for the program but completely clueless on how to work with high school students. That first day when two dozen freshmen stepped off the maize and blue University of Michigan bus they appeared – as adolescents often do — tired and even sullen. But as soon as they came in and put on those white coats something changed.
Inspired by Detroit’s finest
For Doctors of Tomorrow, we partnered with the oldest of Detroit’s elite magnet schools. In a city marked by blight, Cass Tech stands as a beacon of educational promise in one of the most beautiful school buildings I’ve ever seen.
We believed it was extremely important for students to meet alumni from Cass Tech who have been successful in medicine. During panel discussions about what it takes to have a career in medicine, students have met Cass Tech alumni Jon Carethers, M.D., chair of the U-M Department of Internal Medicine, the largest clinical department at the Health System, Annette Joe, M.D., breast radiologist, and anesthesiology trainee, Lakeisha Marshall, M.D., who graduated from Cass Tech at age 14.
Once at the U-M students are totally engaged in mock patient exams, visits to the human anatomy lab, lectures on global health, shadowing physicians in the clinic and practicing laparoscopic surgical skills in the Clinical Simulation Lab. During clinical skills day, they learned to check vital signs, reflexes and heart and lung sounds, and discovered how doctors use those physical exam signs to diagnose disease.
Medical students, some with prior teaching experience, are leading the program design and developing the big ideas that make the Doctors of Tomorrow program work. Each ninth-grader is paired with a first year medical student who serves as a mentor. Both mentor and mentee are dealing with a lot of the same stressors and anxieties. The mentors are the high school students’ contact for questions about homework or to find out what it’s like to prepare for college.
We have been consistently blown away by the students’ year-end Capstone Project presentations at Cass Tech, which are given in front of their teachers, families and friends. The Capstone projects allow Doctors of Tomorrow students to not only research disease, but to understand how that condition affects their community. We want them to think about what steps they can take to mitigate the effects of the disease in their own neighborhoods.
Pipeline programs across the country
More than a decade ago the Institute of Medicine’s report “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” addressed diversity in health care and emphasized student engagement as a key part of increasing the proportion of health care professionals from underserved populations.
Since the report not much has changed. This lack of diversity limits the quality of medical education and contributes to disparities in health care delivery.
But our hope is that the Doctors of Tomorrow program can provide a guiding framework for other U.S. medical schools to increase racial diversity by connecting with the bright minds in their states and neighborhoods. One pipeline program in Detroit may not necessarily change things, but pipeline programs at the more than 140 medical schools across the country can make a difference.
Take the next steps:
Watch Dr. Fink at TEDx Muskegon describe Doctors of Tomorrow program
Connect with the U-M’s Office of Health Equity and Inclusion
Learn more about diversity initiatives at the U-M Medical School.
Jonathan Finks, M.D., is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Health System. He conducts surgical outcomes research at the Center for Healthcare Outcomes & Policy and is the director of the Michigan Bariatric Surgery Collaborative. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of California Irvine, College of Medicine, Finks is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive surgery and has been a member of the U-M faculty since 2005.