Health Science Center offers new programs to increase the diversity of the health care workforce in Texas

April 8, 2015

Having a more diverse health care workforce isn’t just a lofty goal. Numerous studies – including one by the Institute of Medicine – have documented that patients from minority communities do better when they are treated by health care professionals with similar backgrounds.

photo of minority student

The Texas A&M College of Medicine and College of Nursing have both started new programs designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented communities who apply to medical and nursing school.

That is why the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and College of Nursing have both started new programs they hope will help increase the diversity of the health care workforce in Texas. Both programs have been funded by grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

The College of Medicine has started a three-part program it calls the Aggie Doctor Initiative. This initiative is designed to help prospective medical students at key stages in their academic careers: their first year of college, the medical school application process, and their first year of medical school.

The initiative launched last fall with the selection of 25 first-year undergraduate students at Texas A&M University who are participating in an existing program called the FOCUS Learning Community, which is designed to help support low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Each of these students was paired with a current Texas A&M medical student who has a similar background. In the fall, the students all took the same chemistry class as well as a common seminar class to help them prepare for exams. The program has also made science tutors and supplemental instruction available for those who want them.

“First-year undergraduate students on a pre-med track face a schedule packed with classes such as chemistry, biology and statistics,” said David McIntosh, assistant dean for diversity at the College of Medicine and director of the Aggie Doctor Initiative. “We lose so many students in that first year.”

After just one semester, McIntosh said the benefits were clear as the program’s inaugural students performed much better in their first semester than pre-med students have done in the past.

“We even had two students earn a 4.0 grade point average,” he said, also noting that the group of students has formed a unique bond, which should provide support as they continue their undergraduate education.

This spring, McIntosh began offering some medically relevant experiences for the undergraduates, such as a suture clinic taught by medical school students. Participants also are shadowing physicians at Health for All, a nonprofit medical clinic in Bryan, and have had the opportunity to work with Mark Sicilio, M.D., a practicing pediatrician and the interim chair of the Humanities Department in the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

“We hope some of these students will attend the Texas A&M College of Medicine, but we will be happy to see them attend any medical school,” McIntosh said. “Some of them will be highly sought after.”

While the first year of college is a pivotal time for all students, sophomores and juniors interested in entering into medicine can still benefit from the Aggie Doctor Initiative through a program called Pre-Med Fellows, which accepted its first 10 participants last fall.

The Pre-Med Fellows program also provides mentoring, as well as an MCAT prep course, a seminar on preparing medical school applications, and the opportunity to sit in on some classes at the College of Medicine. Students who complete the Pre-Med Fellows program and earn a score of 27 on the MCAT will be guaranteed admission into the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Finally, for students entering their first year of medical school, the initiative is launching MedCamp, which will welcome its first 25 participants this summer. These participants will be selected from among applicants who have expressed an interest in remediating healthcare disparities in Texas. These students will have the opportunity to arrive on campus a month early so they can participate in a variety of social and academic activities designed to acclimatize them to life as a medical student.

“In medical school, students have tests every two weeks that cover about as much material as they would have had in a whole semester as undergraduates,” McIntosh said. “Even students who have been high-achieving their entire lives sometimes hit a bump in the road when they get here.”

Students participating in MedCamp will be connected with four mentors to help them as they start medical school – a staff mentor, a clinical faculty mentor, a science faculty member and a mentor who is a second-year medical student.

The College of Medicine received funding from the THECB to run the Aggie Doctor Initiative for two years. After that, McIntosh hopes to secure additional funds to keep the program going and make it available to even more students.

The College of Nursing is using the grant it received from the THECB to develop a program to recruit and retain more nurses from South Texas, specifically Hidalgo County, which is the poorest county in the United States. The goal of the program is to expand the Hispanic nurse workforce, since this is the most underrepresented racial/ethnic group among the registered nurses, with only about 6 percent nationwide.

The college is partnering with South Texas College, the South Texas Health System and the McAllen Independent School District to identify potential candidates beginning as early as middle school who have an interest in the field of nursing. The program, which will leverage the college’s presence at the Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus, will include workshops to talk about careers in nursing and offer application assistance to prospective students.

Jodie Gary, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nursing who is directing the initiative, said the college hopes to double its enrollment of Hispanic students within the next two years. Gary thinks one program that might be particularly appealing to students in the area is the college’s R.N. to B.S.N. program that can be completed online.

“South Texas has fewer nurses with bachelor’s degrees than other parts of the state,” Gary said. “Studies have shown a positive correlation between level of education and patient outcomes, so this is something we can do that will really make an impact in that area.”

— Ellen Davis