Pipeline Programs Produce Newest P&S Students

To enhance opportunities for all students to pursue careers in medicine, Columbia each year offers programs—courses, lectures, and faculty mentoring—to undergraduates from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who aspire to work in health professions. Six students entering P&S with the Class of 2017 had attended one of the four main programs. Approximately 170 students participate in programs on the CUMC campus each year.

Michael Hernandez'17 studied in the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program two summers ago. The six-week residential program offering 80 students training in medicine and dentistry through courses, lectures, clinical rotations, and faculty mentoring, started in 1987 as the Minority Medical Education Program launched by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Columbia was among the first schools to host the first summer session in 1989.

Six members of the Class of 2017 participated in Columbia programs that help aspiring students apply to medical school. From left are Leanne Duhaney, Michael Hernandez, Elvis Camacho, Nicholas Rozon, Ignacio Contreras, and Pliceliany Perez. Photo by Amelia Panico.

Over the next two decades, the program expanded to 12 schools and added a pre-dental component. The program adopted its current name in 2005 to reflect the new dental track and the expansion of the project to include economic disadvantage.

Other pipeline programs at CUMC:

  • The Summer Public Health Scholars Program, a joint program of the four CUMC schools. The 10-week program is open to undergraduates going into their junior or senior year and recent college graduates undecided about their career goals. It offers courses in public health, hands-on field experience in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, seminars and lectures, and career counseling by faculty members.
  • The Northeast Regional Alliance MedPrep Scholars Program, a collaboration among P&S, New Jersey Medical School, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Manhattan-Staten Island Area Health Education Center. MedPrep is intended to help college freshmen and sophomores from New York City and New Jersey become more competitive in applying to medical school by exposing them to the workings of four of the tri-state area's medical institutions. 
  • The Strategic Testing Application Techniques Program. The four-month "weekend academic enrichment boot camp" provides rigorous preparation for the MCAT plus coaching on how to apply to medical school and succeed once accepted.
  • The State Pre-College Enrichment Program (S-PREP). This academic enrichment program is offered on Saturdays to 50 minority and/or economically disadvantaged high school students from the New York City area who show interest in careers in medicine and/or the sciences. Students participate in activities and workshops that provide opportunities to gain hands-on experience in science. They also participate in supplemental didactic instruction, a Kaplan SAT preparation course, and other educational activities. One hundred percent of S-PREP students graduate from college.

Mr. Hernandez credits the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program for teaching him how to apply to medical school and for exposing him to new ideas. But most importantly, the program provided support. "When I was in the program, the administrators were rooting for me, believing in me, encouraging me," he says. 

The statistics testify to the program's efficacy: To date, more than 21,000 students have participated in the program nationwide; of those, 66 percent were accepted to medical school. More than one in four students who graduated from the program between 2006 and 2009 enrolled at CUMC.

"The most important thing we offer is encouragement and guidance," says Hilda Hutcherson, MD, associate dean of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at P&S. "These are not students who would normally have expectations of attending medical school. Lots of these kids are the first in their family to graduate from high school. They are good students who need support."

"Your environment plays a huge role in who you become," says Richard Ansong, DDS, a 2002 graduate of the program who is now a postdoctoral student at the College of Dental Medicine. "A lot of kids know they want to be doctors, but how? SMDEP helps you understand what it's like to be a doctor and how it feels to help patients."

The program succeeds in part because it takes a holistic approach to instruction, pairing courses in basic sciences with the teaching of study skills. Participants attend financial planning workshops and seminars; they also spend time in a real-world, clinical environment, shadowing physicians in a range of specialties. The 60 pre-medical and 20 pre-dental participants in the program are coached not only in academics, but also in the practical aspects of getting into medical school and succeeding once there. For aspiring physicians and dentists who may not have met a doctor from their background, this mentor-based approach can make a world of difference.

"Many of them wonder, 'Can I do this?' because they've never seen a faculty member or a physician who is a minority," says Dr. Hutcherson. "On the first day, I ask how many of them have been told they can't become a doctor or a dentist. Almost everyone's hand goes up. It gives you goose bumps."

A lack of diversity in medical school is of more than academic interest: It has an impact on patient access to care. Minority physicians and dentists practice in underserved communities at much higher rates than do whites. In a 2012 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, 55 percent of African-American medical school students and 36 percent of those of Hispanic or Latino descent planned to practice in an underserved area, compared with 21 percent of whites. And minority patients tend to choose minority health care providers, according to another study by the American Medical Association, making a reduction in disparities in health care inextricably bound to increasing the number of minority doctors.

National pipeline projects, in concert with scholarships and affirmative action, have leveled the field in some respects. Minorities represent only 6 percent of doctors in the United States, though they represent 26 percent of the population.

Before he began his formal medical studies, Mr. Hernandez spent the summer volunteering as a teaching assistant and residential adviser for the program that gave him so much. "SMDEP set me up for success," he says. "Now I'm fortunate enough to come full circle. I want to give that back."

After graduation, he wants to provide primary care for underrepresented groups, particularly the LGBT community, to address "health disparities that affect minorities here and across the nation."