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How West MI doctors are helping shape a diverse future in medicine

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Hospital systems around the country are investing more in diversity, equity and inclusion to try and bridge the gap of health outcomes for underrepresented populations.

Black doctors at Spectrum Health have shared their experiences of being the only physicians who look like them, and the reaction they get from patients, both positive and negative.

Despite the fact that Black Americans make up about 13% of the population, fewer than 6% of doctors are Black. Change doesn’t happen as one event: it’s a process that takes time. The change has to start with education and Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine has been a leader in this area.

Dr. Candace Smith-King graduated from MSU’s medical school and is now the vice president of academic affairs at Spectrum Health.

“I believe in 1976, we had the same number of Black men going into medical school as we did in 2010,” Smith-King said.

One of the women who has helped forge some of that change is a mentor of hers: Dr. Wanda Lipscomb, the senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and the associate dean for student affairs at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Lipscomb described working for change as a task we often find daunting.

“Going from zero to 20 seems so far, but you actually go from zero, to one, to two, to three, to four, to five,” Lipscomb said.

MSU started working towards attracting a more diverse class of medical students decades ago, with a mission statement focused on serving the underserved population.

“We want all of our students to feel comfortable working with multiple populations,” Lipscomb said.

One program dates back to the early 1990’s: It’s called the Advanced Baccalaureate Learning Experience program, meant to make sure the college doesn’t lose students who might need what Lipscomb referred to as “a little buffing off” to be successful in medical school.

“That (mission statement) becomes almost like a lightning rod of bringing interested applicants to us, and because we have a holistic review process as part of our admissions process, I think we attract good candidates because they are aligned with what’s important to us,” Lipscomb said.

The holistic review process focuses not only on test scores, like the MCATs, but also on what diverse experiences the applicants have had. Students who go through that process and have strong letters of recommendation but may not have had access to all of the academic resources they need to be fully ready for medical school have the chance to go through the ABLE program. In the program, they spend a year brushing up on those skills to make them successful medical students.

Lipscomb is rare, in that she is one of the 4.4% of PhD holders who is a Black woman, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. She went to Lincoln University, a historically Black college, which she credits for helping her achieve her success.

“I needed nurturance to believe I could be successful after attending segregated, separated and unequal public schools in the South,” Lipscomb said.

She emphasized the importance of having mentors for anyone to achieve success and has filled that role herself for many people, including for Smith-King.

“To watch her be a medical student, be trained, and have her now at Spectrum as the designated institutional rep over all of the graduate medical education programs at the hospital, that’s just awesome for us,” Lipscomb said.

Smith-King values having that mentorship and friendship as well. She talked about the “head nod” for the faculty of color, a silent affirmation that they are seen and understood.

She said it’s a way to say, “I see you, I’m here for you, and there aren’t even any words that need to be spoken.”

But with roughly 3% of physicians being Black women, there are fewer people to give her that head nod in medicine. That’s one reason the faculty tries to connect early on with residents, who often work 80 hours a week or more.

“You’re already at a totally different level of stress and anxiety and just always at your emotional end, so that … head nod is sometimes all you need to know you can get through this, because somebody else got through it before you,” Smith-King said. “Dr. Lipscomb is one of those people who poured into me as a medical student. She was one of the first faculty I saw when I was going to medical school and she wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘I’m here for you, just let me know what you need.’ Those are the types of things you need when you feel like you’re the only one in a place at a time.”

Smith-King is paying that forward, giving the same support to younger physicians, including resident Dr. Elexus Carroll.

“Residency is hard, and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s even harder when you’re a minority, and I think having strong leadership in a position where they can help you and you see them every day, that’s huge. It changes the game,” Carroll explained.

For her, it goes beyond setting a good example: it’s empowering.

“When you’re making critical decision for patients … emergency medicine is a very stressful job. You’re making life-saving decisions every day, and it’s nice to look at someone and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, they look like me. They’re making those same decisions too.’ It just feels better,” Carroll said.

She started her residency at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids after being introduced to the city as a medical student in Kentucky through Spectrum’s minority visiting scholars program. Students spend four weeks doing a rotation in the specialty they are considering going into, with the chance to connect with multiple faculty members and the director of the residency program.

As beneficial as programs like that and ABLE have proven to be, these three doctors all agree that the education outreach must start at a younger age if there is going to be a long term impact.

“We really have to make medicine look (like) football and basketball. It has to look cool, it has to look exciting,” Smith-King said.

Lipscomb agrees, which is one reason she supports the “Reach out to Youth” event that typically happens every year in the Secchia Center at MSU’s College of Human Medicine, although the pandemic has forced that event to go virtual.

“We would (normally) have this atrium filled with 200, 300 elementary school-aged kids. They would be sitting here listening to our dean talk in his white coat about medicine,” Lipscomb said.

The goal is to motivate younger learners to think about medicine as a career. The medical students plan the curriculum and deliver it, which can act as a light bulb to others who come from a diverse background and show them that their goals are attainable.

Even for people who are not in medicine, Smith-King emphasized that we can all make a difference.

“We can use our voice no matter where we are and speak up for those who don’t have a voice in those rooms,” Smith-King said. “So if you happen to be a teacher, use your voice in the educational atmosphere. With you being in the media, use your voice in that medium. For our community leaders, use your voice to advocate for those who are not at the table. I really think that’s how we do it.”