January 29, 2020
Third-year emergency medicine resident Alex Sloboda, MD, has established a mentorship program for high school students, many of whom are from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine and health care. Partnering UPMC Hamot with Erie High School (EHS), the program aims to steer students with fewer opportunities to consider health care careers.
The following interview is a paraphrased representation of our discussion.
Health Scholars is based on a mentorship program started by Maurice Hinson, MD, a classmate of mine at Drexel University College of Medicine. Disparities in opportunities for people of color was one of the main drivers behind his idea. This issue is personal to Dr. Hinson, who was raised in Philadelphia and attended public schools there. His premise was this — when you increase opportunities for underrepresented social populations, you end up with a more diverse physician and health care provider workforce.
We take high school students who might not think about a career in health care on their own or may already be passionate about a particular field, and we expose them to these types of professionals and facilities at UPMC Hamot. EHS students come to the hospital for monthly hands-on workshops with various health care providers who show them aspects such as ultrasound, simulation labs, and emergency medicine services. They also hear about initiatives like Stop the Bleed and experience direct mentorship from health care providers at UPMC Hamot.
I have a lot of help in coordinating all the details. On the Hamot side, the residency program directors and the GME office are very committed. At EHS, principals, administrators, and counselors are heavily involved. Gannon University’s GO College program has supported us in critical ways as well. It’s a collaborative effort, no doubt.
When I say workshops, I’m talking about fun and interesting hands-on encounters. Our students have explored the interior of ambulances and medical helicopters. They’ve role-played as physicians in simulated clinical scenarios. They’ve tried out ultrasound machines on volunteers in real time. There was even a field trip to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Engaging experiences like these help students to imagine themselves eventually in similar roles. UPMC Hamot leaders also share tales of their own career journeys and the students find inspiration.
To become a health care professional, it’s essential to get on the right college track early on in high school. That’s no small undertaking. Health Scholars is designed to work with the students in an appropriate timeline to prepare for college entrance exams, complete college applications, and other practical steps towards further secondary education and training. EHS is already doing an excellent job in this regard, and we hope to add additional support.
We want these students to find their way to meaningful lives with real purpose and leadership roles. But there’s more to it than that. As more students with underrepresented social identities become working health care professionals, diversity in their chosen fields is naturally increased. That’s significant because it’s widely held that diversity in the health care workforce is one effective strategy in addressing health care disparities among patient populations. We know from the research that these disparities do exist. Unfortunately, not all people from all backgrounds receive the same level or quality of health care, but they should. Diversifying the health care work force helps fight this problem.
Many of the students say they want to help people when they grow up. That’s an attitude worth nurturing. The students also know they need to keep up their grades to participate in the program and they respond by making it happen.
Elijah Dixon says “I’m very lucky to be involved in Health Scholars because now I can definitely imagine myself as a doctor. I can see myself talking to patients and taking care of them. I couldn’t before. I know that my whole life I will remember everything I've gotten to do in this program.”
“I’m very lucky to be involved in Health Scholars because now I can definitely imagine myself as a doctor. I can see myself talking to patients and taking care of them. I couldn’t before. I know that my whole life I will remember everything I've gotten to do in this program."— Elijah Dixon
Being part of mentorship programs like Health Scholars during medical school and residency has been one of the greatest joys of my medical career thus far. Creating a support system of health care providers to guide high school students in becoming leaders in health and social justice in their own way is very important to me. I enjoy getting to know each student individually and learning about their stories. American society and the overall education system is set up to make it more difficult for youth from certain social and economic groups to realize and achieve their life aspirations, but programs like this are hopefully part of the answer to overcome these barriers and inequities.