The nation’s medical schools not only have received a record number of applications this year but also have seen an increase in candidates from groups typically underrepresented in medicine. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the 155 U.S. medical schools in its membership saw an 18 percent average jump in applications for this coming fall, and some institutions have noticed an especially large boost in applications from Black and Latine students.
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, for instance, saw a 20 percent increase in applications overall but 43 percent growth in applications from Black students and 30 percent growth in applications from Latine students. The medical schools at Howard University and Morehouse College, both historically Black institutions, reported 28 percent and 26 percent increases, respectively, NBC News reports. Currently, just 5 percent of the nation’s physicians identify as Black, compared with 13 percent of Americans.
Experts attribute trend in part to pandemic, racial reckoning
Some higher education experts point to the pandemic and racial reckonings of the past year as key drivers of increased interest in medical professions among students of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black, Latine, and Native Americans are almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white peers. “What we’re seeing in our applications has a lot to do with the crisis showcasing the obvious importance of physicians to local communities,” Dr. Steven Berk, dean of the Texas Tech medical school, told USA Today.
“I think we can look at our society and what’s happening on the news day-to-day…thinking about the recent social protests and really greater awareness around anti-racism and the importance of really looking at systems change, and that’s true for medicine as well,” Norma Poll-Hunter, senior director of AAMC’s workforce diversity portfolio told NBC-DFW.
Applicants motivated by personal, community experiences
Students of color have been vocal about this dynamic, too. “My sense is a lot more Blacks and Latinos I know are interested in medicine due to this crisis,” says Miriam Cepeda, a Columbia University sophomore who saw her grandfather die from COVID-19 and plans to apply to medical school. “We’re seeing things happen to those we know and are wondering, ‘How do we get into positions where we can better help our people?’”
“You can see it over-and-over in application essays from minority applicants this year, especially about knowing that their communities are underserved in terms of medical providers,” says Mike Kennedy, assistant dean of admissions at University of North Texas Health Science Center’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Kennedy says his institution saw the number of Black and Latine applicants increase by nearly 40 percent and 21 percent, respectively, between 2020 and 2021.
Calls to address structural barriers
The AAMC, which predicts a national shortage of 133,000 physicians by 2033, notes that applications are just one part of the equation: medical schools also must consider how they will address long standing hurdles, financial and otherwise, for medical students of color. “Medical schools increasingly realize the importance of training a diverse physician workforce that can care for a diverse nation,” Geoffrey Young, AAMC’s senior director of student affairs and programs tells USA Today. “We still have a lot of work to do on that.”
“I would hope these times would galvanize people, but the reality as a Black woman who went through this process is that it’s a long-distance to travel between the dream and reality,” says Dr. Michelle Albert, associate dean of admissions for the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “One thing everyone in our profession has to work on is minimizing any structural barriers that make this career more challenging.”
For its part, AAMC is working to offset the cost of medical school applications where that might be a barrier; the association also is working with medical schools to address unconscious bias. Individual institutions also are taking steps. USA Today reports that administrators at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons are increasingly recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities and connecting students of color with mentors.
Meanwhile, leaders at four historically Black institutions—Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Morehouse School of Medicine in Georgia; Meharry Medical College in Tennessee; and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California—are reducing students’ loan burdens with help from a $100 million donation from the Bloomberg Foundation.