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CSU Working To Increase Diversity In Healthcare

Students in an Urban Health Fellows meeting at Cleveland State University. [Sean McDonnell / ideastream]
Students in an Urban Health Fellows meeting at Cleveland State University.

Less than 9 percent of the physicians at the Cleveland Clinic come from underrepresented minorities, and at University Hospitals, the number is less than 6 percent. This is the norm in hospitals across the country, not the exception. Some believe that having more minority health providers could help tackle the big problem of health disparities in the region and across the country. A program at Cleveland State University is working to recruit and train more minority health professionals. 

The program is called Urban Health Fellows. Nursing major Sade Vega learned about it by chance during a coffee run at the campus café. 

“I was getting coffee, and Ms. Culliver she grabbed me one day and she was like, ‘you’re really interesting to talk to… I really want you to come and look at this program.’ Ever since then I've been hooked,” recalled Vega.  

Sade Vega is an Urban Health Fellow at CSU. [Laura Fillbach / ideastream]

CSU assistant professor Brigette Culliver runs the program. She said the key to helping these students succeed is in providing support that goes beyond academics. 

“We look at their academics, of course, but we also look at just their soft skills that they need in order to be successful in college,” said Culliver. “We look at their financial literacy. We look at really trying to get them into social networking programs, that social capital that they wouldn't have if they weren't in a program like this, coming in as a low-income student, first generation or minority student, they don't have that. And this program offers them those kinds of things.”

Regular group meetings are one way for students to connect with each other, and to find out about different career tracks – something that had a big impact on Sade Vega. 

“I recently changed my major… and I think I'm just going to go ahead and try to be a physician, instead of, you know, becoming a nurse,” said Vega. “I didn't even know really what physicians did before, and I was like, ‘oh, you know, this sounds a lot more like what I really want to do,’ you know, rather than becoming a nurse, which I thought was the only thing I wanted to do in a hospital.”  

Urban Health Fellows meetings offer a chance for students to get support and learn about careers in the health professions. [Sean McDonnell / ideastream]

Getting minority students like Vega to see themselves as doctors can be the first step toward increasing the number of students like her in these fields. This is important because public health studies suggest that having more minority health care providers at all levels will help reduce disparities in health outcomes and access to care.

Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, visited CSU back in October to speak at an event called “Health Care Disparities in the Stokes Era and Beyond.” 

According to Sullivan, “We have an ongoing challenge in working to see that the health of low income and minority populations is as good as the white population. That’s not the case today. … In 1900, the overall life expectancy for African Americans was some 10 to 15 years less than that of whites. Now it’s around 5 to 7 years less. So we’ve made some progress, but still there’s that gap which should not be there.”

Former US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, spoke in Cleveland about health disparities in October, 2017[Roger Lumpkin / ideastream]

Sullivan said one way that diversity among health care providers makes a difference is that studies show black and Latino physicians are more likely to set up practices in underserved areas. 

“They had a higher percentage of Medicaid patients, a higher percentage of patients without any insurance whatsoever,” said Sullivan. “So they were taking care of a lot of patients that white physicians were not taking care of.”

Research also shows that minority patients often feel more satisfied with the care they receive from practitioners who look more like them. However, underrepresented minorities – that’s African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans - account for less than 9 percent of the physician workforce in the U.S., while together those groups comprise over 30 percent of the population.

Programs like Urban Health Fellows are designed to close that gap. The students in CSU’s program receive valuable academic and social support, and the fellowships also come with financial assistance, which is key.

Urban Health Fellows began four years ago with 25 students. This year there are 54. The program is growing, but it’s too early to know how effective it is in seeing its students through.

Julia Michaels, with the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, studies how programs like this can be more effective in getting more minority health care providers into the field. She said in addition to programs that serve students directly, it is also critical for universities to make policy-level changes. 

For instance, Michaels said, increasing faculty diversity, and implementing holistic admissions criteria that look beyond test scores and GPAs, and take into account,  “…things like cultural competence, communication skills, all sorts of things that really make for a good nurse or make for a good doctor.”

In fact, research shows that building more diverse classes “doesn’t just benefit minority students, it benefits every student who’s in the class by having that experience,” Michaels added.

Taken together, these strategies can help universities be a driving force in addressing the problem of health disparities.

Brigette Culliver, Director of the Urban Health Fellows Program, wants her students to understand that they have an important role to play in improving healthcare in the US. [Laura Fillbach / ideastream]

Back at Cleveland State, Brigette Culliver sees when her students are feeling overwhelmed by the workload. But she wants them to know that they have an important role to play because of who they are, and the experiences they’ve had. 

Sade Vega appreciates the encouragement. 

“She helps me, like reassure me” said Vega of Culliver, “like, you know, ‘if it was easy everyone would do it.’ So I have to remember that. I take it one day at a time. That’s what I just do now.”

laura.fillbach@ideastream.org | 216-318-6568