Breaking Down Barriers to Medical Education

Inspired, in part, by the students he guided as an RWJF program mentor, a physician finds a way to offer open access to MCAT tutoring.

    • January 8, 2013

Making the cut for medical school requires a great deal more than good grades and a passionate desire to become a doctor, and no one knows that better than Alfa Diallo, MD, MPH. While Diallo was fortunate enough to have a physician father as a role model and the ability to afford tutors, his exposure to the students he mentored as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Minority Medical Education Program, led him to the conclusion that, “success [in medical school] is based on resources, yet the system just does not seem to be fair,” Diallo says.

Diallo became sensitive to the plight of many of his fellow medical students while he was still a student himself. “Even in college, I did a lot of volunteering,” he recalls, referring to the 1,200-plus hours of time he contributed to Madison House, the volunteer organization at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and other organizations. “I was also very involved in doing peer review and other activities as a medical student. It was enormously inspiring because the students were so excited about learning and grateful for the help.”

But Diallo was also motivated by the lessons he learned from his grandfather. As a child growing up in a poor village in Guinea, he remembered his grandfather emphasizing the critical importance of education. Watching his father and his mother, a nurse, care for patients also fueled his desire to practice medicine.

Imparting Pearls of Wisdom

Fueled by a commitment to support other young people who aspired to become physicians, Diallo continued to volunteer as he began his own career. After graduating from medical school, he signed on to mentor students through RWJF’s Minority Medical Education Program (now called the RWJF Summer Medical and Dental Education Program) in 2001 and 2002.

“It was a great experience. But the biggest positive influence on me was Moses Woode, PhD, who was then the director of the program,” recalls Diallo, who now practices emergency medicine at Memorial West Hospital in Pembroke Pines, Fla. “He is from Ghana and he was so filled with good cheer and kindness. It was amazing to see him work in an environment with so few people of color and try to make a difference for students from all backgrounds.”

While working with the program, Diallo mentored groups of 14 or 15 students at a time, but he was also acutely aware of the thousands of students, worldwide, who needed tutoring that he and his colleagues could not reach. “I knew there were other programs to help people prepare for the medical school entrance exams, such as Kaplan and Princeton, but those courses cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 or more. I wondered, how were these students who were working and surviving on student loans going to have time to attend, much less afford, a prep class?”

Having just completed the book Microbiology Recall (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004), Diallo decided to self publish a book that would allow students to prepare for the MCAT at half the cost of a course or less, and to create free, open access online study modules as well. His book, MCAT Pearls (2005), used the American Association of Medical Colleges MCAT curriculum to create a review course for busy premed students.

“After completing the manuscript, I worked with the Student Doctor Network, a nonprofit education organization, to place the modules from the book on their site,” Diallo explains.

“It was very difficult to market the book at first,” Diallo says. “I really knew very little about promotion, so I emailed small, grassroots organizations and the Student National Medical Association to let them know about the resource.” Eventually, the book was placed on Amazon.com. To date, the student medical association reports that more than 150,000 students have used the free, online version of MCAT Pearls.

There’s an App for That

While Diallo was satisfied with the print and online versions of the book and pleased to be reaching students, he had no idea that one of those students—Michael Fujinaka, MD—had yet another idea about how to help future physicians.

“I did not know what he was working on, so I was surprised when he got in touch to let me know that he had taken MCAT Pearls and created an app that is now sold through Apple Computers,” Diallo says. For a mere $2.99, students can now download the sage advice found in MCAT Pearls to their iPad, iPhone or iPod and study on the go.

While Diallo is pleased that Fujinaka, who is now an anesthesiologist, came up with the app, he says he never set out to make a killing in the worlds of publishing or technology. “I simply felt there was value in providing free access to medical school education materials. I felt there were barriers that needed to be overcome. I thought it was important to provide an open access study guide especially for people who have decided that they want to become healers and give back to their communities.”

Learn more about the RWJF Summer Medical and Dental Education Program.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities visit RWJFLeaders.org.