Consider Medical School Choice Carefully as a Minority Student

Delece Smith-Barrow

The African-American doctors on Bravo's latest hit, "Married to Medicine," make the world of minority physicians look glamorous: big houses, a professional circle that shares their ethnicity and plenty of parties.

Students at the Howard University College of Medicine petitioned the show because of its depictions of cat fighting and backstabbing, but "Married to Medicine" is still a hit. Its premiere on March 24 drew 1.9 million viewers, according to a release from the cable channel.

Unlike the show, the reality for prospective M.D.s and current physicians can be far more challenging for underrepresented minorities. The Association of American Medical Colleges defines this group as "those whose numbers in medicine are disproportionately lower than in the general population," such as African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and some Asian subgroups. In the 2011-2012 school year, only 1,332 African-American candidates and 1,701 U.S. Hispanic candidates were accepted into U.S. medical schools, according to the AAMC.

[Determine if a career in medicine is right for you.]

Diversity experts advise prospective students to be selective - both in their applications to medical schools and residencies, and where they choose to practice - in order to be successful in an industry where most of their colleagues come from different racial and religious backgrounds.

"We know from the research that minority medical students face disproportional feelings of isolation and a lack of empowerment," says Monica Vela, associate dean for multicultural affairs at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine.

Speaking with current students and faculty can help candidates gauge a school's diversity climate, says Vela, who advises prospective students to evaluate schools on three basic points.

"Find an institution that clearly supports both service, community outreach and research that focuses on minority health and ending health care disparities," says Vela, who is also a faculty member for the Latino Medical Student Association. LMSA, one of several professional organizations for aspiring and current Latino physicians, has about 3,000 members. It provides mentoring and scholarships for medical school students, among other resources.

[Learn what it means to be a disadvantaged M.D. applicant.]

Another organization serving underrepresented minorities is the Islamic Medical Association of North America, which offers seminars and mission trips to countries like Sudan and Haiti.

Ayaz Samadani, president of IMANA, says it can be difficult for medical school students and doctors who practice a different religion from their colleagues and the population they serve. Some physicians will ultimately decide to practice in a community more accommodating to their spiritual needs, he says.

Because religion can be a polarizing issue in some communities, he encourages physicians to be careful when discussing it with patients.

"Do not talk about the differences, but talk about the similarities," he says.

[Apply to a U.S. medical school as an international student.]

For aspiring African-American doctors, thinking about the Affordable Care Act, which goes into full effect in 2014, may be critical, says Rahn Bailey, president of the National Medical Association, a professional organization that primarily serves African-American doctors.

Through the Affordable Care Act, Bailey says, medical practices that care for at least 5,000 patients will receive additional funding, but many NMA members don't have enough patients to take advantage of this benefit.

"It's tough for one doctor to do that," he says. "Disproportionately our numbers show that many of our members in the National Medical Association, many African-American doctors, are in solo, private practice." He encourages those in private practice or considering private practice to think about collaborating more to meet the target number of patients.

The change in health care laws may also cause some African-American doctors to reconsider which communities they serve, he says, noting that some of the provisions in the health care plan are geared to provide better incentives for doctors to get patients well.

Minority physicians are more likely to practice in underserved communities, according to a March 2013 report in the medical journal Academic Medicine.

"All groups, not just African-Americans, and all doctors, may find it better to work in settings or communities where patients are historically more informed, educated and prepared for the new health care changes," says Bailey.

Vela, who created a health disparities course at Pritzker to keep students engaged about challenges facing minorities, recalls meeting a Latino student in an incident that almost brought her to tears. The student intentionally shied away from joining the Latino Medical Student Association, telling Vela, "I wouldn't want people at my medical school to recognize that I was Latino."

"Not everybody is lucky enough to be at a medical school that supports diversity," Vela says. She offers some straightforward advice for students in similar situations: "It's time to join an institution where you'll be valued for your diversity."

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