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Journey to Medicine Program Helps Young African American Males to Excel

By Vanessa Orr

The American Medical Society reports that out of 985,375 physicians in the United States, 37,800—or 3.8 percent—are African American. This lack of African American doctors can affect patient care for those who prefer physicians who are culturally similar to them, as well as whether vital research is being conducted to combat diseases common to African Americans. It can also limit drug studies and medication trials targeted toward the African American population.

William Simmons, M.D."To address the disproportionately low representation of African Americans males in healthcare, we had to acknowledge the fact that in Pennsylvania, the black male high school graduation rate is approximately 58 percent, compared to 84 percent of white males; a 26 percent achievement gap as reported by the Foundation of Public Education," explained William Simmons, M.D., a visiting associate professor at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside Hospital and president of Gateway Medical Society, Inc. "Our goal is to create a pipeline of college-ready African American young people who would be qualified to go to medical school, become doctors and take their places caring for the whole community."

Motivated by dire national statistics, in 2009, Gateway Medical Society started an academic enrichment mentorship program for African American males called Journey to Medicine. This academic pipeline program starts a new 6th grade class every year and continues to educate and mentor the student through high school. "We focus on males because African American males are in crisis and fall far behind African American females in academic endeavors. For example, of the 20 to 23 African American students who will attend the University of Pittsburgh Medical School this year, two-thirds are women," explained Dr. Simmons.

The Journey to Medicine students are immersed in science, technology, engineering and math from the sixth grade on to make sure that they are college-ready when the time comes. "We give them a familiarity with medical terminology and scientific thought by exposing them to the two human simulation labs in Pittsburgh," said Dr. Simmons. "They are exposed to simulated hospital environments and simulated ambulances at the West Penn Hospital STAR Simulation Center, and as the student advances to higher grades, they get an opportunity to learn from practicing physicians of multiple specialties at the University of Pittsburgh's WISER Human Simulation Center."

Both the students and their families must be committed for the program to work. Now in its fifth year, the program includes 84 students from city schools ranging from 6th to 10th grade; approximately 25 new 6th grade students are added each year. The new students are recommended by principals and teachers because of a desire toward medicine, but do not have to have a high grade point average. "Our first year, we enrolled one student with a 4.0 GPA and one with a 1.5 GPA and everything in between," explained Dr. Simmons. "The average GPA was 2.7 for that first class; after two years, that same class had an average 3.6 GPA. Five of the 10 boys in that first class have just been inducted into the National Honor Society in 10th grade."

Grants from The Heinz Foundation helped initiate the program and have been the main source of funds to keep it running. "Many of our classes are held at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School's Faulk Library, West Penn Hospital's STAR and UPMC's WISER Human Simulation Centers," said Dr. Simmons. "Many of our students also take advantage of other college preparatory programs like Investing Now. It is obvious to us that mentorship is the key to tremendous performance and improved outcome for these young men."

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For more information on the Journey to Medicine program and other programs offered by Gateway Medical Society, visit www.gatewaymedicalsociety.org.

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