“We need more doctors who look like us.”
I led a small group discussion with high school students enrolled in the Medical Careers Education and Emergency Preparedness (MedCEEP) ‘s Summer Pipeline Program. Our task was to brainstorm solutions to address a critical health disparity, and our group was assigned the topic of “Maternal Health.” The students, all young Black and Latina women from the Southside of Chicago, unanimously agreed that increasing the representation of doctors who share their racial backgrounds would be a powerful step towards addressing the Black Maternal Health Crisis. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to their White counterparts.
Unfortunately, the recent Supreme Court decision deeming race-conscious admissions as unlawful is expected to have a significant negative impact. It is projected to decrease the number of Black and Latinx students enrolling in medical schools and other professional degree programs by 37 percent.
The Association of American Medical Colleges has argued in an amicus brief for the Supreme Court that diversity in medical education markedly improves health outcomes. They cite evidence showing that minority health professionals are more likely to practice in underserved communities, and racially diverse health care teams can lead to better health outcomes for minority patients due to increased trust and provider insight.
Despite this, the representation of Black and Hispanic doctors remains low, with only 5.7 percent and 6.9 percent respectively. Several barriers hinder Black and Latinx students from pursuing careers in health care, including financial burdens, concerns about the duration of training, and difficulties in acclimating to the majority culture. However, the most significant barrier is the high attrition rates. Even before race-conscious admissions policies were outlawed, affirmative action alone was insufficient to create a health care workforce that reflects the demographics of the American population.
Given the additional challenges medical schools and other health care training programs face in building racially diverse classes, there is an urgent need to significantly increase financial and personnel investment in programs that recruit and retain students of underrepresented racial identities in health care fields.
Pathway and pipeline programs are activities designed to support the matriculation of students with underrepresented identities into health care training programs. These programs can begin as early as elementary school and continue to support post-baccalaureate students in their journey towards medical school. They offer comprehensive support, including academic assistance, mentorship, extracurricular enrichment, and financial resources.
The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, located on the Southside of Chicago, hosts several pipeline and pathways programs. MedCEEP, for example, runs an eight-week summer program where local high school students participate in career panels, health disparity didactic sessions, and skills workshops. Additionally, they receive mentorship from medical students, residents, and faculty. The school also organized the 7th Annual Black and Latina Women in Medicine Forum, providing a space for women at all career stages to discuss their unique experiences as minoritized identities in medicine. Pre-medical student attendees were even gifted MCAT study materials, which are often financially inaccessible to many students.
Dr. Abdullah Pratt, an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Pritzker School of Medicine and my mentor, participated in pipeline programs at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago during high school and college, respectively. Today, he runs programs that expose thousands of Chicago children to careers in medicine while educating them about emergency preparedness and violence prevention. His inspiring story exemplifies how early pipeline programs can transform students into agents of change, working to address health inequities in their own communities.
Given the public’s mixed views on race-conscious admissions policies, investing further in pathways and pipeline programs may prove to be a more palatable and less politicized approach to increasing the diversity of health care professionals. As a former 9th-grade biology teacher, I witnessed firsthand how increased academic support, early career exposure, and positive mentorship made all the difference in keeping students on track to graduate. I believe that similar educational interventions aimed at diversifying the health care fields would have a broader appeal and impact.
With Black and Latinx professionals continuing to be underrepresented in medical fields, expanding current programs that aim to increase representation is crucial. We need to reach more communities, recruit more promising students, and ensure they stay in health care fields for the long term. If you are a medical professional or student, I encourage you to consider donating your time and resources to a local pipeline program. If such a program does not exist in your area, perhaps you could take the initiative to start one. Only through increased investment in these programs can we create a workforce of health care professionals prepared to promote racial health equity at a national level.
Alia Richardson is a medical student.