Daily News Op-ed: Diversity can make New York healthier

More doctors should know the culture, and the language



Saturday, December 30, 2017, 5:00 AM

Sheba Ebhote, the daughter of a Guyanese immigrant, grew up in Brooklyn, where she saw her family struggle to get their health-care needs met. A cultural disconnect between her family members and their doctors led to poor medical care.

That experience motivated Ebhote to become a doctor who would serve members of her community. But she soon discovered pursuing a career in medicine was fraught with obstacles and barriers, particularly for individuals traditionally underrepresented in medicine.

African Americans and Latinos, who together make up 31% of New York’s population, are only 12% of the state’s physician workforce. Making matters worse, for some groups, like black males, the number enrolled in medical school has actually declined over the past four decades: The number of black male medical students statewide went from 548 students in 1978 to 515 in 2014.

Those of us who work at all levels of education, health care and government have a collective responsibility to help more underrepresented students find the path to and through medical school.

This is not just about equal opportunity.

Diversity in medicine is key to improving the health of New Yorkers. Data shows that when patients and physicians are from similar backgrounds and speak the same language, health outcomes improve. This is due to longer patient visits, increased patient satisfaction and improved adherence to treatment.

Doctors from racial and ethnic backgrounds typically underrepresented in medicine are also significantly more likely to practice primary care, and to practice in areas federally designated as medically underserved.

But many obstacles exist along the path to becoming a physician for students such as Ebhote.

High school and college advisors have misconceptions about the medical school application process and the qualifications that are needed to enter medical school. Those misconceptions often deter students from applying. In addition, the cost of medical school tuition — the median level of debt for the class of 2017 was $192,000, not including accrued interest — is often used as a rationale for suggesting a student take a different career path.

There are other challenges. In college, Ebhote found that her high school curriculum had not prepared her to tackle pre-med courses. Her grades left her at a competitive disadvantage when applying to medical school.

The solution for students like her is simple: Access to medical school pipeline programs that provide academic enrichment and mentoring.

The Associated Medical Schools of New York, which I lead, has overseen successful pipeline programs since 1985. AMSNY’s Diversity in Medicine Program, which is supported by the New York State Department of Health, has enabled over 450 students from economically or educationally underserved areas to become doctors.

The programs help students prepare academically for medical school and provide them with the support and guidance they need to navigate the preparation and application process.

When New York Medical College saw Ebhote’s passion and potential, they offered her a conditional acceptance upon successful completion of the post-bac program. Earlier this fall, she donned a white coat as a student of the NYMC class of 2021.

But these programs aren’t enough. The cost of medical school and the ensuing debt remain major obstacles for underrepresented students. Schools in New York provide generous scholarships based on need, but they can’t fill the gap alone.

Earlier this year, New York State, thanks particularly to members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, seeded a new scholarship program with a $500,000 investment.

A group of students underrepresented in medicine are each getting $42,000 paid towards their tuition. For those attending state school, the scholarship covers the full tuition cost. The scholarship lifts the financial barrier to medical school enrollment.

But it has only been funded for one year. The dearth of diversity in medicine suggests we need a long-term investment in scholarships and increased support for pipeline programs. We hope we can count on the state to fill the gap.

Wiederhorn is president of the Associated Medical Schools of New York.