A more diverse medical school isn’t just better for students who’ve historically lacked access; it increases cultural competency in all students—and it’s an important step toward combating health disparities, says Paul White, J.D., director of admissions for the University of Minnesota Medical School.
A 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association study affirmed that assessment, concluding that diversity in medical schools helps prepare students to serve today’s varied patient population.
These ideas provide the basis for the Medical School’s Minnesota’s Future Doctors program, which in 2007 started preparing college-age Minnesotans from underrepresented communities for medical school admission. Participants—minority, immigrant, rural, and financially disadvantaged students—are selected from the freshman classes of universities and community colleges around the state.
White calls the program “a win-win for everyone we’re all benefiting.”
The program’s director, Jo Peterson, Ph.D., agrees—and she believes that participants have a “leg up” on cultural competency. She cites an example of a Muslim Somali-American student who immediately apprehends real-life parameters around prescribing medication during Ramadan. “How can you take three pills with food throughout the day when you’re not eating until sundown?”
Most Future Doctors fully understand financial challenges facing many patients as well.
“You can’t teach poverty,” Peterson says. “Most of my students see from the poverty level more efficiently.”
Three-quarters of those students are from families at or below the poverty line in Minnesota; a few, Peterson says, experience chronic homelessness.
All have demonstrated academic promise and discipline, with high grades, letters of recommendation, compelling essays, and histories of community engagement.
Often, students are coming from backgrounds where medical school—and perhaps even an undergraduate education—simply aren’t part of the equation. Scholars in the Future Doctors program, White says, just need a level playing field. “They need that hand on the shoulder.”
Medical School executive vice dean Mark Paller, M.D., M.S., admits he had doubts about the effort translating into successful medical school applicants.
“Initially, I was a skeptic; it’s very expensive. Those of us with research backgrounds like to see data,” Paller says. But now, it’s a “demonstrated success—a value for the Medical School.”
White concurs. “This program has been very well-conceived. These students enrich us by their presence. I’m really pleased, and I think frankly that this is just the start.”
By Susan Maas