A Prescription for Diversity among Medical Doctors

Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan is all too familiar with the myriad of challenges plaguing the medical profession.

For one, he says, the nation’s longstanding critical shortage of primary care physicians lingers on. In addition, he notes that, although 30 percent of Americans are African-American, Latino or Native American, those populations now make up less than 10 percent of those working as physicians and dentists.

Sullivan hopes his newly-launched initiative will help address those issues in Ohio and create a model that may be replicated nationwide.

The Education for Service model is a key element in the partnership between Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and Cleveland State University (CSU). The initiative aims to encourage minorities to become primary care doctors working in underserved Northeast Ohio neighborhoods.

Both institutions are joining forces to recruit promising undergraduate students for enrollment into CSU.

“The Census Bureau reports that by 2042 there will no longer be a White majority in this country,” says Sullivan, president emeritus of Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine. “Research shows that people tend to prefer doctors who look like them. This program is designed to address that issue as well.”

The ultimate goal, he says, is to affect the quality of care and improve health outcomes for residents in urban and rural communities, which are often medically underserved.

CSU students in the program will be groomed for admission into NEOMED, a community-based public medical university in Rootstown, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland, by 2013. Some will receive full medical school tuition scholarships in exchange for a promise to work in rural or urban Northeast Ohio communities for five years after residency.

Throughout their matriculation, all undergraduate (and eventually medical) students in the program will be assigned mentors and gain hands-on experience working in clinical settings in underserved communities.

“Part of the strategy is to have the students gain experience working in both inner city and rural communities to see what living in those communities is like,” says Sullivan, who calls the program a “priority” partnership with the Sullivan Alliance. He established the organization in 2005 in an effort to increase diversity in health professions and thereby reduce health care disparities.

“This program is designed to give them experience while they’re students and to let them know that they can enjoy these communities,” he said.

Programs in which medical school students receive scholarship money to work in underserved communities upon graduation are not necessarily unique.

What makes this effort a standout, emphasizes Sullivan, is that this initiative will target students as young as middle and high school from the area, for careers in medicine and other health care professions. They, along with students from several historically Black universities in Ohio (including Central State University), will be groomed for medical careers.

Sullivan and NEOMED President Jay Gershen say that, if it is successful, they plan to transfer the Education for Service model to other states.

“We’ll be working with communities to establish a high-school-to-practice-pipeline,” says Gershen, a dentist. “They will help us to identify STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools that can funnel students to us. There are other programs [in the country] that have had a similar focus, but none as comprehensive as this.”

Both Sullivan and Gershen emphasize that this program does not just seek to diversify the medical workforce merely for diversity’s sake. The partnership, they insist, will translate into better access to health care among underserved populations and ultimately help save lives.

“This is not simply for diversity, but for equity,” says Sullivan. “Diversifying the medical profession has real life consequences in terms of the quality of care received by patients in rural and urban communities. Working to have a more diverse [medical] workforce and an increase in the number of physicians working in poor communities is not an answer in itself, but it can help to improve health outcomes.”

Gershen says having more doctors establish practices in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods will also have a substantial economic impact.

“The average primary care or family practice physician makes about $160,000 a year, but their practice generates about $1 million in economic activity between the nurses and staff hired and goods and services purchased,” he says. “So we’re also creating an economic engine for these communities.”