'Navigating the Pre-Health Path' summit hopes to bring more black men into the health field

Matt Schorr
October 15, 2018

Pipeline Summit.jpg
Photo by Matt Schorr
Well over 100 attendees registered to attend the “Navigating the Pre-Health Path" summit.

 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Encouragement, resilience and passion were the key messages on September 22, 2018, during “Navigating the Pre-Health Path,” a summit for black men interested in health professions.

“We need you,” James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD, Meharry Medical College (MMC) President and CEO, told more than 100 attendees gathered at Meharry. “The country needs you, because of the passion you bring to the problems you face.”

André L. Churchwell, MD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) Chief Diversity Officer, noted, “No one can stop your willpower.”

 

Attendees

Approximately 131 young men registered for the summit. Of that number, 28 were high school students.  

In addition, students attended from universities like Tennessee State University, Fisk University, the University of Alabama, Lipscomb University and Nashville State, among many others.

The majority of attendees came from Nashville and its surrounding communities. There were, however, several who traveled from out of state to be there. Three attendees came from Georgia, and five came from Illinois. There were also young men from as far away as Michigan, Mississippi and Florida.

 

Origins

The event was the brainchild of Dr. Hildreth and Dr. Churchwell, who discussed the need for a “call to arms” on the plight of black men in medicine, health and science.

“There has been growing concern on the number of African American males who enter med school, from 626 in 1971 to 515 in 2014,” Churchwell explained. “In 2017, less than 40 percent of black male applicants entered medical school.”

Both men agreed the situation was dire, and that black males needed to hear the message that not only could they be successful, they must be successful.

 

Urgent need

The summit focused on increasing the number of black men entering graduate school for health professions. As noted above, currently, that number is dismally low. Hildreth, Churchwell and other organizers hope to change that.

Matthew Walker, PhD, VUMC Associate Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, who moderated the opening talks, shared with participants that, as of 2018, there was a distinctly lower distribution of black males as doctors across America.

“There is an urgent need for medical students like you,” he said.

 

History and stories

Hildreth’s father passed away in January 1968 when he was just 11-years-old. He suffered from cancer and didn’t have access to care. That, Hildreth said, is where his journey to the medical profession began.

“That’s when I decided I should become a doctor,” he said. “Four months later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and that further fueled my decision.”

Churchwell, meanwhile, lost his aunt to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). “She wasn’t taken care of in the hospital, and she passed away in my grandmother’s home,” he recalled. “Watching that spurred me on to think about the medical field.”

 

Challenges

Dr. Walker recalled his grandfather, who was known as a “ghost surgeon” among his peers. Although his grandfather was Chief of Surgery at Meharry, at VUMC Walker said, “He came in after patients were anesthetized, performed the surgery and then left before they woke up,” he said, “so they wouldn’t know a black surgeon had operated on them.”

Hildreth remembered many people discouraging him from pursuing his dream. “At that time, a black man worked primarily in blue collar fields,” he said, “but I had my mother pushing me.”

Churchwell described being in school when America’s education system de-segregated. “Some teachers didn’t believe in me,” he said, “but my parents did.”

Hildreth stressed the need for positive counterbalances to stand against the negative messages, and Churchwell urged attendees to find mentors that could teach them how to find the tools for success.

 

Student perspectives

Gerald Onuoha, MD , MMC Internal Medicine Resident and Project Dream CEO, moderated a panel discussion with health profession students from both Meharry and Vanderbilt, and they highlighted the need for passion and drive to succeed.

“There is no limit to what you can do,” Onuoha said. “Nothing can stop you from doing what you want to do.”

The panelists – MMC medical student Gerald Jones, MMC dental student Michael A. Lyn, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) student Nathaniel Yohannes and Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN) student Tomas Grant – agreed that words of encouragement throughout their education was vital.

Echoing the words of Hildreth and Churchwell, they restated the need for black males in all health professions. “We have to encourage people that being a scientist is cool,” Onuoha noted.

 

Admissions and financial aid

Representatives from both institutions’ admissions and financial aid offices provided insight into the process of paying for education.

The costs can be intimidating, they acknowledged, but not impossible and should be considered an investment in one’s future.

When applying for medical school, they explained, the key was for applicants to find ways to differentiate themselves. Passion, enthusiasm and drive were all important ways to accomplish this.

 

Ambassadors and Mentors

In attendance were “Ambassadors”—black, male faculty, residents and students from both institutions were on hand to answer questions and network with those in attendance.   The Ambassadors – each designated with a blue dot on his name tag – sat with attendees at every table to facilitate discussions, provide guidance, share their journeys and act as potential networking resources.

Numerous additional representatives from MMC and VUMC also attended, and readily offered their own experiences and encouragement.

 

Perspectives from over 100 attendees

Prospective health professions students who attended the event also offered their own views and provided feedback on a pathway forward and next steps.

“Seeing that there are those like me, who expressed their failure and struggles and still made it to the medical profession,” one attendee commented when asked what he liked best about the event. “I have never seen that before.”

Another said “being able to be motivated by so many successful black leaders in medicine” was his favorite aspect.

 

Closing remarks

C. Scott English, MD, MMC Adjunct Faculty and VUMC Assistant Professor of Medicine. closed out the event by saying, “If you ever feel you’re in a room where you don’t belong, every single person in healthcare has felt that way at some point.”

He urged everyone to find mentors to guide them on their respective journeys. Such people are crucial, he said, for success.

“To all the future leaders in this room, please let your gift shine,” he said. “Let it shine.”

 

About the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance

Founded in 1999, the Alliance bridges the institutions of Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Its mission is to enrich learning and advance clinical research in three primary areas -- community engagement, interprofessional education and research -- by developing and supporting mutually beneficial partnerships between Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the communities they serve. Through community engagement, the Alliance serves a large community of stakeholders including surrounding universities and colleges, community organizations, faith-based outlets and community health centers. Its interprofessional education enhances students' interdisciplinary understanding and improves patient outcomes through integrated care. The research conducted provides access to experienced grant writers and materials supporting the grant application process and facilitates grant-writing workshop.