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Latino Men See Dramatic Jump as First-year Medical School Students

When Luis Godoy earned his associate’s degree and became a radiological technician in 1999, he soon found himself being called upon to do more than just take X-rays.

“I was able to bridge a gap between physicians that don’t speak Spanish and patients that don’t speak English,” Godoy said during a recent interview. “I found that very fulfilling.”

So fulfilling, in fact, that the experience of working alongside physicians and serving patients who told Godoy they thought he’d make a good physician himself ultimately led Godoy, now 31, to enter the UC Davis School of Medicine this fall in Sacramento, Calif.

While entering medical school is a significant accomplishment for anyone, it was a monumental feat for Godoy, whose childhood was split between schoolwork and helping his parents pick and cut peaches and pears on a migrant farm camp in Suisun Valley in California, who became affiliated with the San Marcos street gang as a youth, and who ultimately got expelled from high school during his sophomore year and became a teenage father during his senior year.

But Gudoy’s rocky sojourn from gangbanger and teenage father to first-year medical student is more than just a compelling story of a student who overcame daunting odds to achieve success in the realm of higher education. It is one of the many stories behind statistics released Wednesday by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) that show significant gains in the numbers of minorities who entered medical school this year.

While the number of first-year enrollees to U.S. medical schools has gradually increased over the years—from 16,541 in 2003 to 18,665 this year—the demographic with the most dramatic increase was among Hispanic males, such as Godoy, whose overall medical school enrollment increased by 17.1 percent over last year, according to AAMC. Hispanic female enrollees increased by 1.6 percent, and total Hispanic enrollment was up 9 percent, or 1,539 this year versus 1,412 last year.

The total first-year medical school enrollment for African-Americans grew by 2.9 percent to 1,350 over 2009, when it was 1,312. American Indian enrollees increased by 24.8 percent, although their numbers were small, going from 153 last year to 191 this year.

The largest increase was in the West, where underrepresented minority enrollment grew from 14.1 percent in 2009 to 16.1 percent this year.

Beyond the potential impact of outreach programs such as the AAMC’s Aspiring Docs program, which seeks to get more well-prepared minority students to pursue careers in medicine, AAMC officials say they are hard-pressed to explain what is behind the growth, particularly the dramatic rise in the number of Hispanic male medical students.

But Godoy—who earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from UC Davis—says that, based on conversations he’s had with fellow Hispanic male medical students at the school, the upswing is the result of first-generation immigrants such as himself coming of age and wanting to do something to address the impoverished conditions and unmet needs that they experienced as children.

“From my experience and my peers that are Hispanic males, I think that growing up, experiencing a lack of health care, and all that drove us to want to go back and change how things are,” said Godoy, who is enrolled at UC-Davis through a program called Rural-PRIME (Programs In Medical Education). The program is meant to cultivate “physician leaders” with a desire to serve in underserved communities.

AAMC officials say that, as mandated health care coverage under the Obama administration’s health care reform kicks in, increasing both the number and diversity of America’s doctors of the future will prove more and more important.

“We are very pleased to see the diverse gains,” said AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch. “We really hope this is a trend that’s going to continue in the coming years.”

“We know the national trend is headed toward more diversity,” he continued. “You don’t improve communities unless you have a workforce that reflects the diversity of those communities.”

Although the number of Hispanic males in medical school rose dramatically this year, Hispanics as a group are still underrepresented among medical school enrollees, constituting 8.2 percent of first-year medical school enrollees this year but 15.8 percent of the U.S. population.

Similarly, African-Americans represented 7.2 percent of all first-year medical school enrollees this year but 12.9 percent of the U.S. population.

Technically, Whites are underrepresented, too, making up 64.8 percent of first-year medical school students but 79.6 percent of the U.S. population, but the distinction, of course, is that Whites are not a minority. The one group that is over-represented, if you will, is Asians, who represented 22.6 percent of first-year medical school enrollees this year, or 4,214 of the total 18,665.

Kirch said that, while the number of medical students is growing overall, a shortage of 60,000 is still projected in 2015. An added difficulty to producing more doctors is the scarcity of residency slots, Kirch said.

Asked if HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and other minority-serving institutions were behind increases in the number of minorities enrolling in medical school, Dr. Marc Nivet, Chief Diversity Officer at AAMC, noted that, while studies have shown that students do have an “affinity” for such institutions at the undergraduate level, “We do not have any data, none that I’m aware of, at the professional school level. We don’t know if that holds true at the professional school level.”

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