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Boosting diversity in medicine also improves health outcomes (Guest Opinion by Nakeia Chambers)

Nakeia Chambers is director of Multicultural, Disability and Veterans Affairs at SUNY Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse.

The move to create greater diversity in medicine has received a huge boost in the awarding of $2.44 million for Diversity in Medicine programs, sponsored by the Associated Medical Schools of New York. The funding was included in New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recently adopted state budget.

As part of my role as director of Multicultural, Disability and Veterans Affairs at SUNY Upstate Medical University, I work to help bring in and retain students who are traditionally underrepresented in medicine (URIM) — those who identify as single or multi-ethnic/racial: American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. Diversifying the physician workforce has long been a goal at Upstate. When I was recruited in 2006 to work in the capacity of advancing diversity in medicine, I quickly learned the myriad reasons there are so few doctors of color in our state and across the country are systemic.

This funding is not simply important to create a more representative crop of physicians that reflects and looks like our diverse population, but it’s important for health reasons.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the infant mortality rate for Black babies is a staggering 10.8% per 1,000 live births compared to 4.6% for white babies. Research has shown the mortality rate for Black babies decreases dramatically when Black doctors care for them after birth. Generally speaking, studies show that patients have better health outcomes when they are treated by doctors who come from similar racial and ethnic backgrounds.

But in New York state there are too few Black doctors to care for Black patients. About 31% of New Yorkers are Black or Hispanic, yet only 12.1% of the state’s physician workforce is. In order to provide the best healthcare to all New Yorkers, New York must diversify its physician workforce. That task requires first taking a serious look at why there are so few doctors of color and righting the historical wrongs that have led us here.

The face of medicine has long been that of a white male, but that isn’t because others don’t aspire to become doctors. Historically people of color have been excluded or discouraged from careers in medicine. These students face significant barriers in pursuing their dreams to become doctors. Many are first-generation, low-income students facing myriad financial, academic and social barriers to entering and completing college, unequal access to medical school, and the absence of mentors also play a significant role.

In order to increase diversity among the physician workforce, we must address these systemic barriers and support aspiring doctors from underrepresented backgrounds. Pipeline programs are valuable tools in this mission. Students who matriculate into the state funded Associated Medical Schools of New York (AMSNY) Master’s in Medical Technology Medical Scholars Program at SUNY Upstate Medical University are guaranteed acceptance to the College of Medicine as long as they have a minimum 3.25 cumulative GPA in the program and at 500 MCAT score. AMSNY scholarships and other post-baccalaureate programs at the State University of New York at Buffalo, New York Medical College and SUNY Stony Brook, as well as the recently launched SUNY Pre-Medical Scholars Pipeline Program, are all equalizers. These programs are put in place to level the playing field for students who may not be quite ready for medical school, whether they don’t have the grade point average or financial resources. They reassure the gatekeepers that a student is ready and has the potential to succeed in medical school.

However, the work does not end once a student enters medical school. Students from underrepresented backgrounds need continued support and mentorship to succeed. AMSNY’s programs buoy students throughout their medical journey so that they don’t fall behind. I often tell my students I’m not done with them until they’re a doctor with a job. Even while they’re in their residency program I am checking on them.

AMSNY recently released its Medical School Enrollment Report for 2020-2021 which found that first-year students who are defined as underrepresented in medicine increased by almost two points, reaching 21.1 percent. This is the first time since these statistics have been tracked that the percentage has exceeded 20 percent. Here at Upstate, we’re proud to say that enrollment of first year URIM students is at about 25 percent.

This would suggest that pipeline programs and scholarships for students from underrepresented backgrounds work!

We, at Upstate, applaud this historic funding increase. The move signals the state’s commitment to addressing longstanding barriers to a diverse physician workforce and its effects will reverberate throughout New York. In partnership with AMSNY, SUNY Upstate Medical University will be able to help create more opportunities for underrepresented people in our communities to become doctors and address health disparities in Central New York.

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