PHILADELPHIA — Aspiring physician Danielle Johnson is spending her summer at the University of Pennsylvania investigating how more people of color can participate in clinical trials aimed at improving the treatment of heart disease so that they are equally represented.
Last summer, the Howard University student returned to Penn to study chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“The research I’ve done has come very close to home for me,” said Johnson, 21, an emerging senior at Historic Black College in Washington, DC. “A lot of people in my family suffer from these chronic diseases that we look at. It’s certainly boosted my interest in going into public health … and serving underserved communities in the future.”
Johnson is part of the Penn Access Summer Scholars program, which aims to bring more undergraduate students from underrepresented groups to medical school, guaranteeing them admission to Penn’s highly competitive Perelman School of Medicine if, among other things, they, complete two summers of research, maintain at least a 3.6 GPA in college, a 1300 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT, and strong endorsements.
They are also exempt from taking the MCAT (Medical College Admission) exam, which is a rarity, and at least 50% of their tuition, which equates to about $35,000 per year, is covered. The summer program — which allows 12 new students each year to conduct research, shadow doctors, meet with patients, and take advantage of building support networks — is free and comes with a stipend of $4,000.
Although the program has been around since 2008, Penn announced this year an expanded, formal partnership with five historically black colleges — Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse in Atlanta, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Oakwood in Alabama.
“We’re talking about identifying students with great potential and then we’re going to further enrich them,” said Horace DeLisser, associate dean for diversity and inclusion and a 1981 graduate of Penn Medical School and a pulmonary medicine specialist who has spent his entire career there. .
For years, medical schools have struggled to diversify their pools. In 2020-21, only 8% or 7,710 of medical school students were identified as black nationally, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. About 6.7% were Hispanic. Another 10.3% identified as “multiple race/ethnicity”.
“While we’ve seen some increases over the years, especially when looking at those who identify as black or African American, the numbers are relatively flat,” said Geoffrey H. Young, senior director of the association. for transforming the healthcare workforce. . “That doesn’t mean our schools haven’t worked diligently to increase diversity. They have.”
Financial challenges, as well as structural racism, including disparities in K-12 education and access to housing, are among the barriers, he said. The high demand for students of color is also complicating efforts to diversify students, said Annette C. Reboli, dean of Rowan University’s Cooper Medical School. Smaller schools may lose admitted students to larger medical schools that may offer more generous scholarships.
“That was a challenge that we’ve had to deal with, that we’re also trying to raise money for scholarships so we don’t get disadvantaged,” Reboli said.
Nearly all medical schools that responded to a 2021 survey have “pathway” programs to attract more color students, though they vary widely in structure and capacity, Young said. Locally, Cooper Medical School, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Rutgers, and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School all offer some form of preparatory programs or pipelines for college students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to promote acceptance to medical school. Some programs require a student to have already completed the MCATs.
PCOM and Cooper also provide education for elementary school students to encourage them to see a viable future in a medical profession.
“It’s not uncommon for underrepresented students to have no ambition to become doctors,” Reboli says. “They don’t see many doctors who look like them.”
Guaranteeing admission if students meet certain requirements and forgoing the MCAT, as Penn does, is rarer, Young said.
Admissions students at Penn typically rank in the top 1% on MCATs, DeLisser said.
“If we had that as a filter, we might lose the opportunity to really go after some talented, diverse students,” he said.
The program, he said, allows Penn to assess the students’ potential without MCATs “in a rigorous way.”
Jonathan Gaither, 20, who proudly wore a sweatshirt from Howard where he is an up-and-coming senior, wants to become a physician-scientist and earn both a PhD and a medical degree. The Colorado Springs resident said he views Penn’s opportunity as a mandate to work doubly hard, “not just for myself, but for my co-workers.
“I won’t be alone” [Penn Access Summer Scholars] students in medical school,” said Gaither, the first in his family to study medicine. “So I can’t see myself as someone else.”
Bryson Houston, 22, a 2021 graduate of Morehouse and who completed Penn’s summer program, began medical school at Perelman last fall. His experience there has helped him immensely, he said.
“I started to feel more comfortable with these high-ranking professors and doctors and researchers and started to see myself in these spaces,” he said.
Still, the strong support he once received in medical school made all the difference.
“It was insane to feel the love of the professors and my advisors when I was going through some hard times in class,” he said.
Houston, a native of the Dallas area and the son of a high school principal and an X-ray technician, hadn’t considered Penn until his advisor called him one day when he was a sophomore.
“He said, ‘Hey, can you put on a suit and meet me in my office in 15 minutes?'” Houston recalled.
Then he met DeLisser, who told him about the investigation opportunity and MCAT exemption. Although he thought it was ‘pretty cool’, he didn’t apply right away. Two weeks before the deadline, DeLisser contacted again and Houston applied.
Penn’s medical school receives more than 7,000 applications annually and accepts about 250 or 3%-4%.
Thirty-nine of the 150 students in Penn’s 2021 medical class — 26% — come from underrepresented groups. According to US News and World Report, Penn ranks 28th in the country for diversity in medical students. Temple is in sixth place by comparison, while Drexel is in 81st.
The summer academic program began with promising students from Penn, Princeton and Haverford and eventually Bryn Mawr. Eighty-six students have participated since inception, including 21 who are currently enrolled. Almost all of them went to medical school, and of those who went to Penn, all of them have graduated or are still enrolled.
The expansion into historically black colleges began informally several years ago when DeLisser visited and met promising students. He coached them in applying for medical training and gave advice.
“Now we’re getting students from Xavier who grew up in Arkansas,” he said.
Much of the students’ summer research focuses on medical issues faced by people of color, which appealed to 21-year-old Gabrielle Scales, an up-and-coming senior at Spelman. Her research concerns black women’s breast density linked to cancer.
She looks forward to advocating for patients from underrepresented groups.
“There aren’t many doctors like me and there could be many more,” she said.
DeLisser hopes to eventually add Latin American colleges once he can find donor support for tuition.
It’s important to increase the effort, especially given that people from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to serve those communities, the AAMC’s Young said.
That’s what Johnson plans to do.
“Many people from underrepresented communities benefit more from having doctors who are like them,” she said, “and understand what they are going through.”