Diversity Matters

Is there a doctor in the house? Increased diversity measures are promoting more opportunities for minorities

National initiatives emerge to address the need for more physicians of color.


As the #OscarsSoWhite social media outcry made Hollywood listen to the call for racial inclusion (cue inclusion rider speech, please) the world of medicine has been rallying its own cry for diversity.

In fact, some osteopathic medical schools have made diversity their mission.

According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of black males in medical school in 2014 was 515, which is 27 less than the number of black male students enrolled in medical school  in 1978. The reasons for the decline are myriad and complex, which prompted some colleges of osteopathic medicine to take action.

“Our mission is to train compassionate, clinically skillful, culturally competent physicians of diverse backgrounds who will become leaders in their community,” says Thomas Cavalieri, DO, dean of Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM).

RowanSOM receives 5,000 applications per year for its available seats—there are 200 incoming slots this year for first-year students, the largest ever at Rowan. The increase in class size is to better accommodate the school’s growth and to address the projected physician shortage of between 40,800 and 104,900 doctors by 2030, Dr. Cavalieri says.

“We believe that medical students are enriched by training in the same classroom with a very diverse group. So we have a holistic admission review process that includes diversity, which best enables us to achieve our mission.”

A diversity model

To address the diversity challenge, Rowan created robust outreach initiatives, including pipeline programs that begin in elementary school. Rowan offers a Medical Science Academy where New Jersey-area high school students, a large proportion of whom are underrepresented minorities, learn about various aspects of medicine one afternoon per week. Rowan partners with community organizations to provide a free SAT prep program which has become a pipeline for the Medical Science Academy and a DO shadow program.

At the collegiate level, Rowan conducts year-round outreach at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The school also holds memberships in a number of professional organizations whose mission is to promote diversity. At the post-graduate level,  prospective medical students can pursue a master’s in biology at Rowan to better prepare for science-based studies and the rigors of medical school.

“Diversity in the classroom promotes cultural competency so that the physician has the communication skills and knowledge to provide care for a diverse community,” Dr. Cavalieri says.  “If there is a lack of cultural competency, there is a lack of access to quality care.”

Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine (TouroCOM-Harlem) in New York City offers Med-Achieve, a two-year mini-medical school for freshman and sophomore minority high school students, taught by current TouroCOM medical students.

At the next level, between college and medical school, TouroCOM-Harlem offers a one-year pipeline MS to DO program. “The Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies in Biological and Physical Sciences degree provides high-achieving students that fall slightly short of the required MCAT score with an additional year of preparation, and the opportunity to apply to our DO program,” says Nadege Dady, EdD, dean of student affairs at TouroCOM-Harlem. “It’s a cornerstone of our school and how we’re meeting our mission.”

The challenges

Giovanny Destin’s mother was a doctor in Haiti and his wife suffers from sickle cell anemia—two motivators that led him to medical school. Despite the challenge of being the only African-American male in a class of about 200 medical students at University of North Texas Health Science Center/Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNTHSC/TCOM) in Fort Worth, Destin remains focused. “I want to help others in my community,” he says. “I want to help demystify the field of medicine so that students who look like me can know that it’s challenging, yes, but also doable.”

Like Destin, Ange’le Alston, OMS II, is the only African-American female in a class of over 200 at Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (WesternU/COMP) in Pomona, California. “It can feel isolating … but I try not to dwell on it so as to not get in the way of my education.”

Social media has become an integral part of connecting students to resources, including physicians of color. In honor of Black History Month, the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP) presented a Facebook slideshow of osteopathic medical students of color, within its Students of Medicine Group. The slideshow profiled each student, including their challenges, their inspirations and their goals within the profession.

STAT news joined in the diversity conversation last month, releasing a video narrative featuring six African-American physicians and their first-person accounts of the trials and triumphs of their journeys, titled “These doctors are trying to get more people of color to join their ranks. What some have overcome is startling.”

For Carol Harden, a second-year medical student at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine-Auburn (VCOM-Auburn Campus) in Alabama, role models were impossible to find. “There were no minority physicians to receive mentorship from. So I had to remind myself that becoming a physician was an attainable task,” Harden says. “Becoming a doctor is not only a feat for me, but for people who look like me in my community.”

Ste’Von Voice, a first-year medical student at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine (UIWSOM) in San Antonio, Texas, plans to work in aerospace medicine as a flight surgeon. He says that learning how to study the sciences efficiently was a challenge. “Most minorities [medical students] don’t have an abundance of individuals in the field who go through the same societal challenges,” Voice says. “As a result, there’s a tendency to handle the workload alone.”

Med-Achieve mentor Rhoda Asimeng, a fourth-year medical student at TouroCOM, is the first person in her family to graduate college. She is currently completing her rotation in critical care at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Passaic, New Jersey. “If medicine is your calling, you continue on, reminding yourself that this is your purpose.”

Supporting diversity

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population but just 5.7 percent of medical school graduates.

Recognizing this disparity, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) developed its first-ever diversity committee, which includes staff as well as representatives from 14 of its 34 member colleges.

“AACOM recognizes that the lack of diversity in medical education is a critical issue impacting health care in this country,” says Joye Shepperd, diversity committee co-chair. “This committee provides a forum for information-sharing on best practices, pipeline programs, cultural sensitivity, safe place spaces for students and faculty training. Our goal is to help the COMs become diversity-minded environments where all are welcome, valued and successful in the study of medicine.”

The American Osteopathic Association supports an increase in the number of underrepresented minority (URM) applicants, graduates and faculty at colleges of osteopathic medicine. In 2017, the AOA’s House of Delegates passed a resolution (H424-A/14) encouraging an increase in URM graduates and faculty by 2020.

During a recent National Academy of Medicine forum to address diversity, AOA CEO Adrienne White-Faines reaffirmed the profession’s commitment to promoting diversity. “I am proud of the efforts the osteopathic medical profession continues to make toward greater diversity,” said White-Faines. “Our goal is to be intentional with our efforts and consistent with our shared vision that brings forth solutions that fuel the workforce pipeline and contribute to increasing access to care. The progress we’ve made thus far is evidence that we can continue to meet the challenge, collectively and consistently.”

Building a strong support system and mentors for medical students is a key component of a new AOA initiative. During OMED 2019, the AOA will unveil “The Match Continues,” a program that will connect current physicians of color with medical students to create mentor-peer partnerships. The launch will include a panel and symposium on the need to continue the efforts around diversity.

Next steps

On campus at RowanSOM, the Student National Medical Association, largely comprised of African-American students, and the Student Latino Medical Association work together as advocates for diversity and for the elimination of barriers to health care. The school promotes diversity in the classroom and around campus, but also among faculty.

“Along with efforts to attract a diverse student body, especially URMs, it’s very important that as a medical school, we work to attract a diverse faculty that will become mentors and role models for diversity,” Dr. Cavalieri said.

Mentoring in Medicine (MIM), a nonprofit in Bronx, New York, offers local and national programs to underrepresented students at the elementary, high school and undergraduate level. MiM offers a 20-week Medical Pathway Program (MPP) for college students, a one-year internship in health care for high school and college students, a summer science camp and an annual health and science expo, among other initiatives. According to MiM, 86% of MPP participants were accepted to medical school after participating in the program.

Supporting URMs continues to drive national initiatives, including efforts by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF). During its 47th Annual Legislative Conference, the CBCF partnered with The Links Inc., a nonprofit volunteer organization committed to economic and cultural empowerment, to present a symposium: “Is There a Doctor in the House? The Impact of The Decline of African Americans in the Medical Profession.” The session included a team of leading medical scholars and physicians who outlined progressive measures to continue the growth of diversity initiatives.

For prospective minority medical students considering a college of osteopathic medicine, Dr. Cavalieri has a message. “Osteopathic medicine is a phenomenal profession. We look at the patient as a whole: mind, body and spirit. And we need what you bring. The community and the nation needs you. And you will have the opportunity to help people tremendously.”

For further reading

Building dreams: New COM reflects diversity of surrounding community

DO schools recognized for diverse student bodies

TouroCOM-Harlem awards scholarships to minority medical students


  1. Kenneth Writesel,D.O.

    It is my understanding that minorities are seeking equality. None of the programs described lead to equality, in fact just the opposite. The programs described just add to the list of affirmative action programs that have been around, and failed, for many years. These programs lead to further segregation and discrimination against whites. Why don’t we just stick to medical training for those individuals that are able to meet the academic standards without help. I know I want to be confident that the peer I am dealing with, or the physician providing care to me is not there as a result of an affirmative action.

    1. Brendan S Tanner, DO

      Amen. I cannot reasonably understand how standards could be dropped in order to accomodate diversity no matter what color/creed/orientation, etc. Certainly a medical school or hospital would not hire a dud or an incompetent but wouldn’t you be more comfortable knowing that they hired the best?!

  2. Harper Perry

    Well said Dr. Writesel, I agree wholeheartedly. As a patient I would like to know that my physician attended medical school because he fulfilled all of the strict academic requirements required to be admitted, not because (s)he is of a certain color or race. How will I determine that if DO schools are practicing their own versions of affirmative action? Maybe I’ll just look for DO after their name, something I used to look for because I prefer the more holistic approach to medicine. This approach taints the entire DO profession.

  3. Michael E. Hauk D.O.

    Here’s a thought: How about we make sure trainees are competent, rather than chasing our tails over what race they happen to be? Of course, there’s no money for make-work jobs in “diversity outreach” for “diversity counselors” and “Assistant Deans for Diversity” in that…

  4. RA

    If you want to accept people that meet the requirements without help, then you would need to ensure that all students had the same resources and the same amount of time to complete the requirements.

    You have two students: student A comes from a wealthy family where their parents can pay for their undergrad degree, MCAT prep, application fees, etc. Then you have student B who comes from a poor family, must work to pay for college courses and cannot afford MCAT prep, application fees, etc. Clearly student A has extra help meeting the requirements.

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