New AMA award honors doctors focusing on disparities

The first recipient says inspiring minority students early and giving them coaching in the sciences through high school and college should be a priority.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted March 15, 2004

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Ending health care disparities could seem too big a challenge to tackle on one's own, yet some individual physicians, undaunted by the breadth and scope of the problem, are finding ways to have a significant impact.

To honor such doctors and their efforts, the American Medical Association has created the Recognition of Excellence in Eliminating Health Disparities award.

William McDade, MD, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care and associate dean for multicultural affairs at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, is the first recipient. The award is to be given six times a year.

Dr. McDade, who is also president of the Illinois chapter of the National Medical Assn. and past chair of the AMA's Minority Affairs Consortium, has spearheaded three University of Chicago programs aimed at cultivating scientific expertise among high school and college students. In the past nine years, 37 students -- ranging from high school students to postdoctoral fellows and most from minority groups -- have worked with Dr. McDade in his research on sickle cell anemia.

AMNews sat with Dr. McDade to get his perspective on the issues facing underrepresented minorities.

Question: What do you see as the biggest hurdles for minorities who are pursuing careers in medicine?

Answer: If you don't see it, you don't know it's there. There are few role models, and there's a generation of students who are not even thinking of medical school. The pipeline problem needs to be fixed. Some say if they aren't thinking about the sciences by sixth grade, it's too late. When I was chair of the Minority Affairs Consortium, through the Doctors Back to School project, elementary students were introduced to minority physicians and the possibility of careers in medicine.

Q: What kind of impact do such programs have?

A: When I first started [as faculty at University of Chicago] I had a high school student in my lab through a young apprenticeship program. He's now a senior at Howard Medical School. I think that's in part because he was able to see that he could work in a lab and think like a scientist. When I hear him talk about the research projects he's involved with, it's very exciting to see his confidence.

Q: How did you become a physician?

A: I thought I wanted to be a dentist. I'd heard of a six-week summer program at the University of Illinois for dentistry, which I took before college. Because of that exposure, I decided not to go into dentistry and to focus on the sciences. I did lab work in the spring quarter [attending DePaul University in Chicago] and never stopped. I was the first African-American to graduate from the MD/PhD program at the University of Chicago and the only one until two or three years ago.

Q: You mentioned that you were the only African-American in a class of 104 medical students. Are there many more minorities these days?

A: There are still not many underrepresented minority faces there, but I was asked to sit on the admissions committee, and I think my presence was an object lesson for the committee members. When there were issues about [minority] applicants, I could address them from a minority perspective. There had never been more than three or four in each class. Now there are 17 [underrepresented minorities] per class. We're getting more of the better minority applicants. There's critical mass, and it's more fun for the students. Now I hope they choose to practice where they're needed, though we seem to be turning out more dermatologists. [He laughs.]

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