Nov 15 2011
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An Aspiring Doctor Finds Someone to Show Her the Way to Medical School... and Gives Back

Danielle Wright, a 2005 alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Project L/EARN program, is now working toward her MD and MPH. Here she offers her perspective on the need to help a diverse range of students succeed in medical school.

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I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in middle school. There were no doctors in my family or physician mentors available to me in those years, but that didn’t matter to me. By the time I was in college, I figured I was good to go. I was headed to medical school to become an obstetrician. I knew I had to take specific science classes, take the MCATs, get letters of recommendation and maybe even do some summer programs—no problem. It wasn’t until I actually started preparing my application, around my junior year, that I realized I was lost. I knew what to do, but I didn’t really know how to do it. I was overwhelmed by the number of applications, appointments and forms. I quickly discovered that there were a lot of potential pitfalls in the medical school application process.

Getting into medical school is difficult for even the most capable applicant, regardless of background. But, the process becomes even more challenging if you are a member of a group traditionally underrepresented in the medical profession. Not because there is anything different about you as a potential student, but because not that long ago, medicine was a closed, elite club. That means that if you hit a wall in the application or academic process and begin looking for that trusted role model, mentor or advocate, there’s seldom anyone there to show you the way.

Fortunately, as an undergraduate student at Rutgers University, I found ODASIS—Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences—a program for minority students interested in the health professions. ODASIS not only provided the guidance I needed to apply to medical school, but advice on how to succeed in my career. Next, I participated in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Project L/EARN. The program was very important to me for two reasons. First, I was introduced to medical research and public health and I realized I loved them both. After the program, I changed my major from biology to public health and decided I wanted to become a researcher as well as a clinician. In addition, I had no idea that questions about conducting medical research would come up in my medical school interviews, but they did. Thanks to Project L/EARN, I was prepared and a stronger applicant than I would have been without participating.

Successfully completing the process and getting into the Vanderbilt School of Medicine made me determined to help other young people like me. So for the past three years, I have taught a medical school application personal statement workshop at the Levi Watkins, Jr., Premedical Conference at Vanderbilt. This conference is aimed at helping traditionally underrepresented minority groups matriculate into medical school. When I started working with the students, I realized that many participants did not know what the application process entailed, even though many were juniors and seniors. Now I offer them the type of help that was given to me.

To those who wonder why it’s necessary to make sure a diverse range of young people enter the medical profession, I want to remind them that physicians, nurses, scientists—everyone involved in medicine—should be representative of our population because that will help us provide high-quality, culturally appropriate health care for all. Doctors and nurses can generally provide effective and efficient services without a complete understanding of a patient’s background.

But physicians are more than just public servants. They are advocates, advisors and sometimes role models. These responsibilities are particularly important when they are working in communities that have been historically underserved when it comes to health care.

The point is not to pair each patient with his or her cultural match. The idea is to ensure that patient care is relevant and responsive to patients from all walks of life.

Tags: Health Care Education and Training, Leadership Development, Physician Workforce, Project L/EARN, Voices from the Field