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Washington Health System Family Medicine Residency Program Introduces Pilot Pipeline Project to Encourage High School Students to Consider Healthcare Careers
By Ron Cichowicz

Washington Health System has taken the lead in introducing a pilot program in Pennsylvania designed to encourage high school students from inner city and rural communities to consider careers in health care.

Dr. Thivisa RajagopalCalled the Health Profession Affinity Communities (HPAC) Pipeline project, the initiative pairs healthcare organizations with local high schools to introduce students to the possibility of becoming a physician, nurse or other healthcare professional. It is an initiative of the Family Medicine Education Consortium (FMEC), a nonprofit organization that promotes family medicine in the Northeast of the United States.

Already flourishing in Ohio, HPAC is meant to spark big dreams among students while helping to meet a critical need in certain communities.

“Building pathways to the American dream for bright young people who are from rural and ‘first generation to college families’ is a priority for our organization,” said Larry Bauer, FMEC chief executive officer. “Helping the students to achieve their dreams means that when they become well-trained healthcare professionals they will return to serve communities like those they grew up in. Long term, this is how we can address the health services needs of rural America.”

The impetus for introducing HPAC to Washington came from Dr. Grant Phillips, Associate Director of Resident Education, after attending the 2016 FMEC conference in Pittsburgh.

“I was helping to judge posters HPAC participants are required to present and I met some high school students from inner city Cleveland,” Dr. Phillips said. “I was impressed by their work and their enthusiasm.

Helping Dr. Phillips coordinate the program this year is Dr. Thivisa Rajagopal, a third year family medicine resident at Washington Health System, who contacted the administration at Washington High School to gauge interest and, ultimately recruit two students to participate in HPAC this year.

“So many students have dreams that they want to become a doctor or nurse but there is something preventing them from doing so,” said Dr. Rajagopal. “Often the reason is financial. But they need to know this is not a reason to stop pursuing their many dreams.

Lilly Christy“The two students we chose have big dreams about going into a scientific field. So why not give them a taste of it, especially at the conference where they are going to meet a lot of physicians, residents and even medical students and see a world outside of high school.”

According to Dr. Rajagopal, the students chosen—Letha Gordon and Lilly Christy—chose a topic and began working on them over the summer. Ms. Gordon’s is on depression and Ms. Christy is focusing on knee injuries, with an emphasis on injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL.
For Ms. Christy, a standout athlete who plays soccer for a local club team and is the kicker for her high school football team, her choice of a topic was an obvious one.

“I tore my ACL playing soccer a year and a half ago,” she said. “I hope to go to college to become a doctor of physical therapy. So my project is looking at ACLs and knee injuries in general, looking at gender differences, the impact of grass versus turf, and so on.”

The students were expected to research their topics and develop a poster to present at the 2018 FMEC conference to be held in Rye Brook, New York.

“It’s a lot of work on top of my school work and other activities,” said Ms. Christy, who estimated she devotes at least 45 minutes a day to the project. “But the topic really interests me and I’m excited to go to New York for the first time.”

According to Dr. Rajagopal, this program can have benefits beyond those gained by the two students participating this year.

“In our community there is a perception the richest kids go to medical school and become doctors,” she said. “But there are kids from inner cities, rural areas or poorer backgrounds who could offer the medical profession a great deal. Through this project, the students chosen can inspire other kids in their high school.”

Added, Dr. Phillips, “Even if the students in the program don’t become doctors, we’ve reached into the community and encouraged an interest in science.

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