The University of Pennsylvania has entered into an agreement with five historically Black colleges and universities to create a pipeline for more Black doctors to enter the medical field.
The Penn Access Summer Scholars program prepares undergraduate students for medical school. It allows them to shadow physicians and participate in student-led clinics over two summers.
It was created in 2008 for Penn students and others at nearby schools. However, the Ivy League school has recently expanded PASS to Morehouse College, Howard University, Oakwood University, Spelman College and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Morehouse graduate Bryson Houston said the program changed his life. He enrolled in 2019 and has since been accepted into UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“At that point, med school was on my mind. But where I was going and how I was going to get there, pay for it — that hadn’t crossed my mind yet,” said Houston, reflecting on when he first heard about the program.
“It was a great experience to come into that space during the summer,” he said. “To get acclimated to a different culture. I felt like I was supposed to be there; doctors allowed me to go shadow and ask a lot of questions.”
Medical schools reported a record increase in first-year Black students from 2020 to 2021 of 21 percent. Black students made up 11.3 percent of the students entering medical school in 2021, up from 9.5 percent in 2020. However, Black doctors made up only 5 percent of active physicians in 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Norma Poll-Hunter, AAMC senior director of workforce diversity, said more medical schools are adjusting their admissions policies to promote diversity. They are bypassing test scores and waiving application fees, allowing more remote interviews and considering race.
Students who complete the UPenn program can apply to the medical school without taking the Medical College Admissions Test, as long as they maintain a cumulative 3.6 GPA. The test requires extensive preparation, costs over $300 to take, and many students pay for tutoring courses to perform better, reports show.
The other benefit of the PASS program is financial aid. Students accepted into the Perelman School of Medicine through the program receive a merit-based scholarship of $35,000 per year and need-based aid.
“We really need to put a lot of energy and focus into supporting these students,” said Sharon Lewis, an associate professor of clinical neurology at UPenn. “And making sure that we’re breaking down some of the barriers that have prohibited our underrepresented students and our Black students from actually matriculating into medical school.”
Studies have shown that Black patients have better health outcomes when Black doctors treat them. Black Americans are more susceptible than other races to chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, research shows, but also have a longstanding mistrust of the medical field.
“Patient rapport is incredibly important. I work in Harlem and in the Bronx and am very familiar with the African-American community there,” said Dr. Brandon Johnson, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
“There is definitely a demographic of those patients who would have a barrier to establishing a rapport with a white doctor,” said Johnson, who is also a UPenn medical graduate. “Black patients see me come in, and they light up.”