Doctor training starts here in 7th grade

A Chicago public school is one of hundreds nationwide that prepare young minority students for college and ultimately a medical career.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Oct. 3, 2005

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A seventh-grader wearing a too-big white lab coat, surgical booties, mask and vinyl gloves trundled up to Glenn Harrison, MD, on a hot, muggy September day in Chicago. After glancing down at a sheet of paper, the boy asked the doctor if he was an internal medicine physician.

Dr. Harrison confirmed that he was, and that he worked at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County. The boy, delighted, asked Dr. Harrison to sign the paper he was holding.

"I feel like a rock star," the internist said.

Dr. Harrison was one of about three dozen physicians who helped students complete a medical scavenger hunt where they had to learn medical definitions, take a physician's pulse and find hidden medical gear. The event was part of a day-long series of activities that kicked off a new public school in Chicago aimed at helping underrepresented minority students prepare for college and eventually a career in medicine.

The Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine, named after the Chicago surgeon who founded the first black-owned U.S. hospital in 1891, is the first school of its kind in Illinois. But the idea is decades old. Although it's unclear exactly how many medical magnet schools exist, experts estimate that there are several hundred programs running.

Offering aspiring doctors a chance to be mentored by practicing physicians should prove invaluable, said Karl Kirby, MD, a Chicago family physician who attended the kick-off.

"Unless you've seen people who've done it, then you don't imagine it," said Dr. Kirby, who is black. "And if you cannot imagine it, you can't achieve it."

Many of the physicians who participated in the event were provided by the AMA's Minority Affairs Consortium as part of its effort to improve the pipeline of underrepresented minorities into careers in medicine and eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.

Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans together make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population but they represent only 7% of physicians and 6% of medical school faculty, according to the MAC.

"When people talk about disparities in health, people are talking about disparities in access to health care," said Julia Dyer, MD, a gastroenterologist at the MacNeal Health Care Center in Bridgeview, Ill., who sits on the school's board of directors. "The key question is how many physicians per person you have in that community." Minority physicians are more likely to practice in underserved areas, said Dr. Dyer, who is black.

More minority physicians also can address the related question of cultural competency and patient trust.

"I've been in medicine long enough to know there is a difference in how minority physicians treat minority patients," said Earl Fredrick Jr., MD, a black internist at the federally subsidized Christian Community Health Center in suburban Chicago and an event participant.

"Culturally, the connection is much better, and black patients seem to have more faith in black doctors than white doctors," he added.

Many studies tracking medical magnet school students show that they fare better than students in normal schools on grades, the SAT and college enrollment rates, according to Kevin Grumbach, MD, director of the Center for California Health Workforce Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. But, he said, most of these studies did not track a control group to isolate the school's effect.

"What's hard to know from these studies is how much these schools attract self-selected, highly motivated students and how much does the program itself give students an extra boost," Dr. Grumbach said.

With those results unclear, the Assn. of American Medical Colleges recently decided to focus more of its resources on minority college students. Previously, the AAMC's Health Professions Partnership Initiative had partnered medical schools with high schools at 36 sites across the country.

"It really did make a difference in people's lives," Charles Terrell, PhD, AAMC's vice president of diversity policy and programs, said of the HPPI programs. "In terms of the big picture, we didn't feel it was making enough of a difference to justify the costs."

Both Drs. Grumbach and Terrell were supportive of medical magnet schools and called for more hard data to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Meanwhile, at Chicago's new school, student enthusiasm is high.

The inaugural class of 2011

Williams Preparatory School of Medicine is located on the city's South Side. The public school is the recipient of a five-year, $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will enable it to offer a rigorous and enriched curriculum, employ better-trained teachers and have a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio, according to Principal Delores Bedar, PhD.

Students who are at grade-level in reading and math are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until each 85-student grade level is filled. Students also must commit to completing the school's six-year program, which begins with the 7th grade.

The Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine has already partnered with Williams Prep to offer mentoring and internship opportunities to students. Several other Chicago-area medical schools also have expressed interest in becoming partners, Dr. Bedar said.

The 85 seventh graders, nearly all of whom are black, and who ran around the school's campus courtyard during the scavenger hunt last month, will be the program's first high school graduating class in 2011. For now they are Williams Prep's only students, as the school will be adding another grade each year.

"It's the most fun I've ever had in school," said Joshua Cade, reflecting on his first week at the medical magnet school. "The work is hard, but it's comprehendible."

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