By Elizabeth G. Olson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; HE01
When D'Onior Felton was growing up in the Mississippi Delta, she thought about becoming a public health worker. She volunteered at a local health center to help the elderly. A few days after graduating from high school in 2000, she joined the Navy and trained as a surgical technician.
Despite her interest in health fields, Felton never considered becoming a doctor. But when the Navy put her to work in an operating room, Felton for the first time imagined herself wearing doctor's scrubs. "Working side by side with surgeons and being given a large degree of autonomy boosted my confidence," said Felton, 28, who earned an undergraduate degree while in the service.
It took Felton three years to complete all the required pre-med science courses after her military discharge in 2005. But today she's a medical student at George Washington University. An African American who did not follow the typical pre-med path, Felton is an example of the nontraditional students that medical schools are going after in an effort to diversify the ranks of America's doctors.
Two years ago, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that diversity in medical schools helps prepare doctors for today's very varied patient population. More than 20,000 graduating students were surveyed for the study; those who had attended more ethnically and racially mixed medical schools saw themselves as better able to interact with a diverse patient pool than those from less mixed schools.
Medical school officials have long said they want a broad range of backgrounds among their students, yet they have had trouble attracting more students from traditionally underrepresented groups. Today, about 7 percent of 77,722 medical students nationwide are African American and about 8 percent are Hispanic, according to the Web site of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents the nation's 132 medical schools. Whites make up almost 61 percent, with Asians accounting for nearly 22 percent. Other traditionally underrepresented groups, including American Indians and Alaska natives, make up about 2 percent.
"The key is the student pipeline, which is so deficient," said Marc Nivet, chief diversity officer for the AAMC.
In 2008, the association issued a "roadmap to diversity" to help medical schools broaden their applicant pools and student bodies while steering clear of potential legal problems. The Supreme Court has restricted the use of race in admissions, allowing it to be considered only as part of much broader education goals.
The Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which accredits medical schools, has also weighed in, saying the schools must make "ongoing, systematic and focused efforts" to attract students from demographically diverse backgrounds. "Because graduates of U.S. and Canadian medical schools may practice anywhere in their respective countries, it is expected that schools recognize their collective responsibility for contributing to the diversity of the profession as a whole," the group's July 2009 policy states. "Each medical school must have policies and practices to achieve appropriate diversity among its students, faculty, staff, and other members of its academic community."
The goal is "to integrate diversity in a broader way," said Barbara Barzansky, secretary of the Liaison Committee.
To do so, some medical schools are targeting students who haven't even begun college. GWU's medical school, for instance, last summer began recruiting underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students who were graduating from District public and charter high schools for a month of study exposing them to various health-care jobs while helping them prepare to succeed academically.
This summer, 16 graduating seniors, all minorities, will participate in the program's second year, focusing on topics such as basic problem-solving and suturing wounds. They will all have mentors who are studying medicine or public health, among them Felton. (During a recent internship of her own, Felton studied the shortcomings of primary and secondary education for minorities who want to enter health-care professions.)
To qualify for the program, students -- who are called scholars -- must have been accepted to a college. They will receive a $1,000 stipend for participating in the program and $4,800 in scholarship money toward college tuition.
"Our goal is to let them see the kinds of opportunities they can have," said Yolanda Haywood, the GWU physician who heads the program, which is funded in part by the university and in part by the federal government.
Mentors keep in touch with their scholars after the summer program is finished to encourage and counsel them when they hit academic or other bumps in college.
Knowing what to expect in college does not make it easy, said Loren Redman, 18, who attended the program last year and has finished her freshman year at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park. Redman, who is Hispanic, has wanted to be an emergency medicine doctor since her mother fell into a coma -- from which she has still not emerged -- six years ago. Redman and her 2-year-old daughter live in the District with her grandmother.
"The program opened my eyes to see what medicine is all about," said Redman. "It really motivated me" and provided support through difficult college classes in biology and chemistry.
Equipping students to handle early college-level science courses is one of the aims of the program, said James Scott, dean of GWU's medical school. "We are trying to help students not to have their career dreams destroyed when they hit Chemistry 101."
Scott said it would be even better if schools could work with students in high school to bolster math and science skills: "You could start even earlier. We are fishing in very shallow waters when it comes to preparation."
At Georgetown University School of Medicine, diversity efforts target college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those with degrees in science. The school reaches out to those whose record suggests that they would be likely to succeed in medical school, even if they have not followed a traditional pre-med path.
For nearly two dozen of these students, Georgetown offers the year-long Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies program, which gives them a chance to take some first-year medical school classes along with test-skills and study-skills courses.
Eleni Footman, an African American who graduated with a health sciences major from the University of Florida, wanted to go to medical school, but the entrance tests flummoxed her.
"I didn't test well, and that was a problem for me," the 25-year-old Miami native said. She attended the GEMS program last year and survived the intensive testing and quiz-taking programs, in addition to three medical school classes. In the end she won a spot in the medical school, one of 75 GEMS students now enrolled there.
The academic boot camp "was one of the toughest years of my life," she said, but "learning and helping each other as a group was powerful."
Olson is a freelance writer.