As head of a health careers program in South Carolina, Angelica Christie was troubled by the low number of minority students going into medicine. The field seemed to interest the high schoolers she worked with, but they often turned to other professions in college.
“There was a gap in the pipeline,” she says. “A missing piece of the puzzle.”
A $600,000 grant from The Duke Endowment is now funding efforts to bridge that gap. Through the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium, Christie works with five colleges and universities across the state to support students who are drawn to health care and to keep them engaged. Called Bench to Bedside, the program provides educational activities, developmental resources and mentoring.
“We look at the barriers that may be keeping minority students out of health professions and see what we can do to level the playing ground,” Christie says.
Demographics shed light on why this is important. The U.S. population is aging, and so is the health care work force. As waves of health care workers retire over the next decade, experts predict that demand will outpace supply.
At the same time, the country’s minority population is growing. That’s true in South Carolina, where racial/ethnic minority groups make up nearly 35 percent of the population.
“Just in terms of numbers, it makes sense to recruit from the population that is increasing, rather than continuing to draw from a population that is decreasing,” Christie says. “We aren’t going to meet the demand if we continue only to attract people from the majority of the population, which is now becoming the minority.”
Beyond the numbers, research shows that minority health providers are more likely to serve minority populations, more likely to practice in underserved areas, and more likely to get effective compliance from their minority patients. Minority clinicians and researchers also may be more inclined and better positioned to address diseases that disproportionately affect minority groups.
“Our goal has always been to try to at least have the workforce reflect the general population,” Christie says. “We’ve made some gains, but we’re not there yet.”
Expanding the Reach
At the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium, known as AHEC, Christie has spent the last 13 years working with students interested in health careers. She directs AHEC’s Health Careers Program -- and as a native of South Carolina, she’s passionate about her work and its importance for the state.
AHEC was established in 1972 to improve the health of South Carolinians. It’s the only organization in the state that addresses health care work force needs starting at the level of elementary school education and extending to practicing health care professionals. Its four regional centers cover the state.
Working as a cooperative effort of the Medical University of South Carolina, the University of South Carolina, and South Carolina community teaching hospitals, AHEC offers programs designed to increase the number of young people in health care professions. Part of that work focuses on underrepresented ethnic minority groups and the economically disadvantaged.
With funding from The Duke Endowment that began in 2012, Bench to Bedside expands AHEC’s outreach to include college undergraduates. According to research, the period of study following high school, but before admission to a health professions training program, is particularly critical to the health careers pipeline.
“The Endowment has supported other efforts to increase workforce diversity in the Carolinas, but outcomes have been mixed, at best, with about a 6 to 8 percent increase in the targeted population,” says Meka Sales, a program officer in the Endowment’s Health Care program area. “It’s also challenging to determine if those gains have been sustained.”
The new grant attempts to build on lessons learned from earlier efforts, Sales says, by specifically targeting students further along in their journey. Project leaders plan to measure success by monitoring the number of minority participants who apply and are accepted into those training programs.
“The goal,” Christie says, “is to work with undergraduates who are interested in a health care career and keep them interested, or, if they haven’t considered it, to show them that this is a possibility.”
Bench to Bedside is active at Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, Winthrop University, College of Charleston, and Claflin University. Through video conferences, students learn about breast cancer from a surgeon, or HIV/AIDS from an expert in infectious diseases. A seminar series covers professional and personal development. A two-day summit will focus on diseases that disproportionately affect minority populations.
“We did a resume workshop and a session on financial aid,” Christie says. “We offered a math and verbal booster to help with the MCAT [the Medical College Admission Test], PCAT [the Pharmacy College Admission Test] and the GRE [for graduate school]. In the spring, I brought in practicing professionals to talk about the similarities and differences between jobs.”
Christie is addressing potential barriers – a lack of mentors with similar backgrounds, racial and ethnic disparities in K-12 education, fewer opportunities for networking – and trying to break them down.
Right now, about 50 students are registered across the state.
Tymeshia Hill, a senior biology major, joined the program at Winthrop. She hopes to spend the next two years earning a Master’s in Health Administration, and then apply to medical school. Eventually, she wants to practice in her hometown of McCormick, S.C., or in another rural area.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a doctor,” she says. “Bench to Bedside is helping me learn the steps I need to take to get there.”
Find more information about the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium
Meka S. Sales
Program Officer, Health Care