Florida launches minority physician mentoring program

Physician leaders say students should be tapped early to try to interest them in becoming doctors.

By Damon Adams — Posted Oct. 11, 2004

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As a child, Willie Newman, MD, had someone to look up to. He got to meet and talk to a black family doctor in his rural community who provided him with a glimpse of life as a minority physician.

He knew by third grade that he wanted to become a physician. And the interaction he had with the family doctor and other minority physicians he met during his youth strengthened that resolve.

"When I met these guys, it seemed like [being a black physician] was real," said Dr. Newman, an obstetrician-gynecologist near Orlando. "It's actually a big deal for kids to meet a doctor."

That's why Dr. Newman has joined other physicians in a new program designed to spark high school students' interest in pursuing careers in medicine. The Seminole County Physician Mentor Program in central Florida aims to increase the number of minority physicians by teaming minority students with doctors who serve as mentors, and who they hope will inspire those students, through words and fellowship, to become doctors.

Physician leaders say such mentoring efforts are popping up as the medical community pushes to reach potential minority physicians well before they pick a college major.

"It's important to get into schools early and get those kids interested in science. Then you try to develop that interest over time," said Kevin McKinney, MD, chair of the AMA's Minority Affairs Consortium and an endocrinologist in Galveston, Texas.

The Seminole County program started as a collaborative effort of the Seminole County Medical Society and the county's school system and hospitals. Last year, coordinators mailed letters to eight high schools, which then gathered names of students, primarily minorities, who would be a good fit, based on their academic abilities and interest in medicine. After more planning and some delays due to Florida hurricanes, a program orientation was held in mid-September.

The first students to enter the program are 24 high school seniors. After matching students with physician mentors, the students in November and February will go to hospitals to observe surgery and visit the emergency department, cardiac cath lab and other areas of the hospital.

"We'll give them a choice of what they would like to do," said Glen Davis, MD, a Lake Mary, Fla., internist and program coordinator.

Catching them when they're young

Also in February, students will write an essay on one of several topics, including minority physicians and illnesses that affect minority communities.

The goal is to develop the program so students enter when they are in the 9th grade and stay until they graduate from high school. During their freshman and sophomore years, students would have career path seminars and other events. They would be matched with physician mentors in their senior year, giving them the opportunity to see medicine firsthand at doctors' offices and hospitals.

"When you get professionals to come in [to schools], the students are just intent on listening to everything they say," said Boyd Karns, principal of Lake Mary High School.

Some medical schools and other groups are trying to interest students early as well. The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health this summer offered a camp program in which students discussed medical specialties and health issues with doctors.

In 2002, the AMA's Minority Affairs Consortium launched the Doctors Back to School program, sending minority physicians into classrooms to encourage minority students to consider a career in medicine.

In the Hippocrates Circle in California, minority youths are targeted through classroom presentations by volunteer physicians, visits to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and other outpatient clinic settings. The circle started five years ago with about 30 students and eight doctors and has grown to more than 100 students and about two dozen doctors.

"There are some students who do not even consider careers in medicine because they have no mentors," said Ricardo Sistos, MD, Hippocrates Circle co-founder and a Kaiser family doctor in San Diego. "As physicians, we forget the impact we have on young students. They look up to us, and we have a responsibility to be mentors to these young people."

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