At a time when all communities are relying on their health care professionals more than ever, providing a high-quality medical sciences education, and then forcing that talent away for clinical training, simply doesn’t make sense.

It’s an issue that medical schools in Memphis and Nashville have always known needed to be addressed—even before the pandemic—but hasn’t until now.

A new collaboration brings together universities and health care providers to help underserved and underrepresented communities in medicine, while at the same time diversifying the talent pool. The University of Memphis, Meharry Medical College, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and Church Health have entered into agreement that will enable students from these medical schools to have preferred access to the health care institutions for their clinical trainings.

“This is a transformative partnership that comes at a critical time for those in health care, particularly in the Mid-South, where patients face a number of health challenges and we work to address health disparities,” says Methodist president and CEO Michael Ugwueke.

Creating New Training Opportunities in the Community

The goal is to recruit, educate, train, and retain the local talent pool and provide the local communities access to that expertise.

“Unfortunately, when we look at the clinical experience for our students, they’re having to go out of town for clinical experience,” says Dr. Dexter Samuels, senior vice president of student affairs of Meharry Medical College and executive director of the Robert Wood Foundation Center for Health Policy.

(Photo: Meharry Medical College)

Meharry is one of the country’s oldest and largest historically Black schools focused on teaching medical sciences such as physicians, dentists, researchers, and health policy. “There’s not that many opportunities to train in hospitals in Memphis. There are plenty of hospitals, but the issue is the opportunity to partner with Meharry so our students could have that experience,” adds Samuels.

The pandemic has certainly amplified the need for health care professionals across the country. Specific to Black males in the medical field, Samuels says there’s a shortage going into the profession. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. will have a deficit of 139,000 doctors by 2033. This year, only 7.3 percent of students enrolled in medical schools identified as Black or African American.

Dexter Samuels, SVP, of student affairs of Meharry Medical College; executive director of the Robert Wood Foundation Center for Health Policy (Photo: Meharry Medical College)

“When (the AAMC) looked at African American males going into medicine in 1978, there were more enrolled in medical school than 2014, so there’s a major push to ensure that black males are entering the workforce,” Samuels says. “Over 1,700 African American males and females were admitted into (medical) schools. It’s not enough when we look at the trends of demographics.”

Programs like this one will contribute to Meharry’s goal to double its class size, which he says will not only help the profession but the communities it serves. With the preferred access now granted through this collaboration, students will be able to have the opportunity for a comprehensive, continuous training ground in one location.

“With a very large system, it’s a wonderful opportunity to have an array of different services they’ll be able to be a part of, when you look at the full complement of services Le Bonheur provides,” Samuels says. “When you look at our affiliation, it was so piecemeal. A student may go to HCA (Healthcare) for primary care experience, or Ohio State for surgery, or the University of Wisconsin, or Detroit Medical Center for obstetrics. This has centralized our approach.”

Increasing Local Health Care Outreach

(Photo: Meharry Medical College)

Developing the pipeline of local professionals and keeping them local is especially critical to the surrounding rural areas that suffer a large gap in health care. The physician rate in Shelby County is one to 400 residents; in Davison County the gap is one to 100, according to Samuels.

Even the Tennessee legislature has recognized the need, and has allocated funds for scholarships that provide tuition assistance for medical school and requires recipients to practice in a rural part of the state for two years.

Another aspect of the partnership enables Meharry, the University of Memphis, and Methodist to work together on research and development, especially to find treatments of diseases including diabetes, hypertension, and HIV.

“With the chronic conditions the community is facing, the services that are provided in underserved communities provide an enriching experience for students,” he says. “There’s more opportunity to work with patients of color and it’s really just ideal for the community.”

The initiative was announced in December. Logistics and planning are currently underway. The first students to experience the benefits of preferred access to clinical training and clerkships are expected by the end of this year.

Samuels points to the outreach and work currently taking place—and still needed—in educating and deploying the COVID-19 vaccine as an example of how both Memphis and Tennessee medical students and residents will greatly benefit from this collaboration even in non-pandemic times.

“It will really enhance our outreach to those communities, then just an enriching experience for students having more practitioners in underserved communities. The resources they’ll be able to put in those communities will be well received,” he says.

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