MEDICAL DISTRICT — Twice a year, a group of doctors get on a bus and travel the country, visiting different colleges, universities and high schools.
Their mission: motivating and encouraging more minorities to enter the health profession.
Dr. Kameron Matthews, with the help of colleague and friend Dr. Alden Landry, launched Tour for Diversity in Medicine, a grassroots organization, in 2011.
The chief medical officer of University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System/Mile Square Health Centers in Chicago, Matthews is also a family physician. She grew up in Philadelphia, but has lived in Chicago since 2003.
“[Landry] and I were on the phone one day, and said, ''Why don’t we just get on the bus?' ” she recalled. “Instead of students coming to see us, because not all students have that capability all the time, why don’t we go see them? And so that’s exactly what we do,” Matthews said.
Traveling on the bus is a group of 15 to 20 top minority doctors who volunteer to visit different colleges and universities twice a year. Matthews said the physicians share their personal journeys, which oftentimes, is all the students need to hear.
In 2014, the number of students who enrolled in medical school for the first time hit 20,343, a new high, according to data by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
There has been some progress in the diversity area as well, data shows: Newly enrolled African American medical school students rose 1.1 percent to 1,412, while the number of applicants increased by 3.2 percent to a total of 3,990. The increase in enrollment among African Americans can be attributed to a 3.1 percent increase in male enrollees.
The number of Hispanic enrollees increased by 1.8 percent to 1,859 in 2014, with the number of applicants increasing by 9.7 percent to 4,386.
Matthews said she would like to see more diversity in the field.
“At every stop we meet students who believed they couldn’t overcome perceived barriers of entering the healthcare profession, only to meet with one of the doctors who empower them with knowledge, resources and support to succeed,” she said. “These same students will make a tangible difference for themselves and their communities by pursuing a career in medicine.”
Robert Trevino, a MD/Phd candidate at Rush Medical College, came across the tour in 2011 and said he was touched by the speakers and liked their organization’s mission. He serves as a student mentor.
“It’s a crazy idea, just throwing a bunch of [medical] students and physicians on a bus and driving around, but what was really interesting to me was the goal of reaching students who aren’t being really reached by programs,” Trevino said.
“How do you get people there, get them quality information and also make sure the advisors, teachers and staff there know how to direct students to quality information? I think the idea of piling everyone on a bus and going to do it ourselves is a noble concept, and it was enough to pull me in,” he said.
The tour offers mentorship and support. During the stops, students participate in a full day of workshops, which explain the medical school application process, admission tests, financial aid, interviewing skills, and even an overview of health disparities.
Matthews and her team have reached more than 2,000 students since the organization’s inception.
Most of the information can be found online, but her method is more about building trust and forming relationships with the students, she said.
“These students need to feel connected to someone,” she said. “We share our own stories, talk about when we completely bombed the MCAT, or when we came to the application with a poor GPA, or from a school that doesn’t typically have good advising, how we overcame it all.”
The fall tour kicks off Oct. 22 and the stops include Portland State University and the University of Washington. Matthews said she is working to partner with City Colleges of Chicago because she recognizes that not everyone takes the traditional route in pursuing medical school.
“More and more medical students are coming into school with credits, if not full degrees, from community colleges,” she said. “We understand students from our communities may need to use community college as a stepping stone, whether financially or academically.”
The need is there: the AAMC forecasts the shortage of doctors by 2025 too be between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians.
"Medical schools understand than an effective physician workforce is a diverse workforce. The gains we are seeing [in minority enrollment] show that we are making progress but there still needs to be more work done to diversify the talent pool," AAMC president Dr. Darrell G. Kirsch said in a statement.