New efforts to diversify medical school classes

Last month, Xavier University, a historically Black college in Louisiana, announced it would establish a medical school in 2025. It is one of nine schools—including Morgan State University, another historically Black institution—that recently announced plans to open new medical schools across the country, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Educators hope the wave of new medical schools will stem the looming shortage of 33,000 primary care physicians in the U.S. by 2035—gaps expected to exacerbate health disparities in Black communities. Black physicians make up only 5% of all active physicians in the U.S., the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports, although the U.S. Black population is 14.2% of the country, according to 2020 Census data.

With Xavier and Morgan State’s proposed medical colleges, there will soon be six HBCU medical schools in the U.S. The U.S. has 170 medical schools overall, most of which are predominantly white institutions (PWI).

New HBCU medical schools could have an outsized impact on the number of Black doctors in the U.S. Although HBCU medical schools currently make up only 2.3% of the nation’s medical schools, they produced 9.8% of Black medical school graduates in 2019, according to the AAMC.

Still, Black medical educators caution against an overreliance on HBCUs to graduate Black doctors. Between 2009-19, the HBCUs Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, and Morehouse School of Medicine each graduated more than 400 Black students; yet, no PWI graduated more than 300, according to AAMC data.

Promising signs for diversifying medical schools?

To truly increase representation, it will be crucial for all medical schools, including PWIs, to improve the recruitment and training of medical students from underrepresented backgrounds. Experts hope the increased diversity seen across medical schools in the 2021-22 academic year could boost the number of Black doctors in the U.S. and the quality of health care Black patients receive. Enrollment of first-year Black medical students increased 21% in the 2021-22 academic year to 2,562 students, up from 2,117 the year before.

Related: School of Medicine welcomes most diverse class in the school’s history >

Existing medical schools need to further improve their outreach to underrepresented students, says James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College. In a 2020 survey by Kaplan, 88% of medical schools said they would express support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but only 48% said they would establish programs to recruit more Black applicants.

Related: After modified admissions cycle, medical schools enroll most diverse class ever >

More than expressing support for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) alone, these schools should invest time and resources into better outreach and admissions practices that make medical schools more accessible to students from underrepresented groups, Hildreth explains. For PWIs, that involves not only “changing how they evaluate students for admittance, but also paying more attention to the pipelines they draw students from,” says Hildreth.

Related: Study highlights lack of socioeconomic diversity at medical schools >

Outreach that prioritizes inclusion

To meet the goal of diversifying their medical student body, some institutions are making medical school more affordable and inclusive. New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine began offering free tuition in 2018 to reduce financial barriers preventing students of color from enrolling. In the first year of the initiative, applications rose 102% for underrepresented groups and 142% for Black applicants.

Stanford University School of Medicine’s DEI efforts—including the formation of partnerships with HBCUs and of support groups for Black students, staff, and faculty—led to a rise in Black enrollment, from 3% of the medical student body to 5% in the last decade, while the share of students from underrepresented groups grew from 15% to 24% in that same period. Those efforts were the result of “a collective, unified front, advocating for this change together,” says Dr. Reena Thomas, the university’s associate dean for diversity in medical education. Thomas asserts that, through that collective efforts, students will “succeed, thrive, be mentored, feel that inclusion at all levels. And that’s something we’re constantly still working on.”

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