The Heart of the Mission

As a top producer of minority health practitioners, a University of Illinois at Chicago program seeks to improve the quality of medical care in communities of color.

Terry Mason was a recent college graduate from the South Side of Chicago trying to get accepted into medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1974. Raised in a rough neighborhood with gang violence, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“At that time my grades weren’t the greatest, and my MCAT scores weren’t the greatest … but it wasn’t a reflection of my ability,” says Mason, now a urologist and commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

He credits his success to a UIC program that began in 1968 to attract and train minority medical students. Mason earned his medical degree in 1978, the year the Illinois Legislature expanded the program, renaming it the Urban Health Program, in efforts to address the lack of Black health care providers in the area where Mason grew up and Chicago’s West Side.

Since then, UHP has contributed to UIC being the nation’s top nonhistorically Black institution in producing Black, Hispanic and American Indian health care professionals. The school notes that about 70 percent of Black and Hispanic doctors working in the Chicago metropolitan area graduated from the university and at least 60 percent of Black, Hispanic and American Indian doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care providers in Illinois participated in UHP. The program will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.

 

“I know that having a program like this is important because I look at it as providing an opportunity for somebody like me who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity,” says Mason, who also is a faculty member in UIC’s urology department.

UHP officials say they are able to recruit and graduate high numbers of minority health professionals because of their early outreach efforts, which expose public and private school students as young as age five to health careers and research. As students advance through middle and high school, the program offers academic, social and financial support for college.

Once students graduate from college and enroll in medical and graduate programs, UHP is there to offer them tutoring, mentors, internships conducting research at universities and companies around the world, plus regular interactions with medical residents and health care providers. The efforts reflect UHP’s mission to increase the number of minority health practitioners and improve the quality of medical care in local communities of color.

“We try to educate and train students and make them aware of their responsibility as a minority health care provider,” says Dr. Darryl Pendleton, UHP director in the College of Dentistry. Pendleton is one of several directors/associate deans overseeing UHP activities within each of UIC’s seven health sciences colleges. Another UHP director runs the Early Outreach Program that works with students from kindergarten through their senior year of college.

Using a six-year grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, staff in the College of Dentistry worked hard to increase the number of minority faculty members over the past five years from five to 18, or 16 percent of the total faculty. And last year, minority student enrollment at the college composed 18 percent of the entering class, says Pendleton, who also serves as the college’s associate dean for student and diversity affairs. He’s hoping those numbers will rise to 25 percent this year, representing historic levels for the dental school.

Tackling Health Disparities

Program officials say many students involved in UHP come from communities where there are too few medical providers on hand to serve the population. “So often they themselves may have been impacted by experiences navigating the health care system or family members navigating the health system,” says Dr. Javette C. Orgain, UHP assistant dean in the College of Medicine.

The program does not require participating students to attend the university after high school. Officials also don’t mandate that medical and professional school graduates work in underserved minority communities. But many do the latter because they want to help alleviate the suffering caused by diseases that disproportionately afflict people of color.

  “I love the fact that I can enjoy medicine and help my people at the same time,” says Whitney Lyn, a third-year medical student at UIC. Lyn says that on more than one occasion minority patients have spoken to her as a Black medical student about their health concerns, rather than the attending physician treating them. “When patients see physicians that look like them, they open up more and listen to the recommendations about their health. They trust the physician more,” Lyn says.

Lyn receives financial assistance through UHP by tutoring first-year medical students in physiology. “As a future female minority physician, I want to help patients by preventing diseases that can be avoided by educating our community about their health,” she says.

Tackling and reducing health disparities found among Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians “really gets to the heart of what our mission is,” says Dr. Michael Toney, UHP executive director. In the School of Public Health, students are engaged in research dealing with HIV and obesity. These students have also joined others in the College of Applied Health Sciences to investigate the effects of hypertension, diabetes and prostate cancer on Black men, Toney says.

Students in high school and the lower grades study and give presentations on these topics as well, while working under the guidance of university scientists. Starting in eighth grade, UHP gives young people tours of various medical areas, including the health anatomy lab where cadavers are kept and the neonatal unit, says Dr. Deborah C. Umrani, director of the Early Outreach Program.

“They also get to handle things like hearts and livers and talk to students in medical school,” Umrani says. “It always has a profound impact on students when they see a baby as big as the palm of their hand struggling for life.”

Despite being recognized as a top institution by publications such as Diverse, for graduating students of color, and U.S. News & World Report, for diversity, the university — in particular the College of Medicine — has come under criticism more than once from minority medical students. In 1998, about a dozen current and former students filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights saying they were unfairly expelled and denied tutoring and counseling services more often than their White counterparts. In 2005, several medical students complained about low minority graduation rates from the College of Medicine. Some tied the decrease to a reduction in UHP staff working within the college. In both cases, the complaints resulted in public hearings organized by state legislators. UHP Executive Director Toney described the complaints in 2005 as being related to concerns regarding perceived threats to affirmative action programs because of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that colleges could use race on a limited basis in making admissions decisions.

In response to both hearings, UHP officials say the university publicly affirmed its commitment to preserving the program, some administrators were removed and the UHP central administration under Toney was given more authority to support minority student initiatives at the individual health colleges.

In 2007, minority students made up 25 percent of the College of Medicine’s entering class. The increase doesn’t reflect a growth in minority students, but rather an additional 80 students of all races who were admitted to the college that year compared to 2006, says Orgain. The medical college is one of the largest in the country.

“You can never satisfy everybody,” she says. “But there have been changes.”

A vital aspect of UHP that has remained strong is the program’s extensive, long-term partnerships with Chicago private and public schools, community colleges, College of Medicine branches statewide and area institutions such as Chicago State University and Malcolm X College. The program also maintains relationships with private practice health care professionals, businesses, government and nonprofit organizations.

Officials in the Graduate College spend plenty of time seeking to diversify their graduate and professional student ranks by traveling to colleges across the country. The Graduate College recently established a memorandum of understanding with the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and plans on creating similar agreements with historically Black colleges and universities throughout the South, says Dr. José M. Perales, UHP director in the Graduate College.

The role of the Graduate College in producing qualified minority health professionals is slightly different from the other six colleges engaged in UHP activities, but just as important, says Perales, who also serves as assistant dean of the Graduate College.

“We’re not necessarily preparing people to go out into the field, but we’re preparing teachers, professionals and researchers,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is make sure we have an infrastructure that will outlive us and have people who will continue to help students.”

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