By Sarina Deb
Stanford affiliates have launched a mentorship program for underrepresented minorities in health, aimed at bolstering support for students as they navigate a career in medicine.
The Underrepresented Minority Health Mentorship Circle (URM HMC) — made up of over 180 underrepresented pre-medical undergraduates, medical students, residents, fellows, attending physicians and faculty members — seeks to help affiliates at all levels support one another’s growth through mentorship.
URM HMC members are split into pods of 10-12 that include a mix of people at different stages in their careers. These pods serve as “mentorship circles”: members who are further along in their medical careers help support and promote younger members.
“Our goals are to help fortify, bolster and improve the pipeline to medicine of underrepresented students through networking and sharing of resources,” program co-director and second-year resident physician Javier Howard said.
Program co-founder Ezra Yoseph ’21, who came up with the idea for the pods, added, “I thought the idea of having pods, composed of members at different stages of their medical career, would offer the opportunity for people at all levels of medical training to not only receive mentorship but also build community with one another.”
The group is one of several efforts that Stanford Medicine affiliates have initiated to bolster diversity and equity within their institution. Last summer, affiliates spoke out about the burden of the “minority tax” at Stanford Medicine, and championed diversity initiatives such the creation of the D-CORE, a physical space on campus for minority medical students to congregate and organize. In 2017, affiliates founded the Stanford Medicine Leadership Education and Advancing Diversity (LEAD) program, with the goal of creating diverse leadership at Stanford Medicine through training and mentorship.
According to the URM HMC’s founders, the program was created to address the lack of support for underrepresented minorities in medicine, and to work towards including and retaining these students throughout the stages of their career.
“It stemmed from the idea that there is a leaky pipeline in terms of the medical path for a lot of underrepresented minorities in medicine,” program co-founder Ronald Clinton ’21 said. “People start off with these ambitions of wanting to become a doctor, but somewhere along the path they aren’t able to find the resources they need to succeed.”
“If you don’t see someone who looks like you or who represents you, it’s much harder to get to that stage of your medical career,” he added.
Clinton, who is also the co-president of the Stanford Black Pre-Med Organization, said he knows firsthand how challenging it can be to go through the process of applying to med school as an underrepresented student.
“You have all these requirements people expect you to do — like research and volunteering, and then all of a sudden you come to this new environment where you’re required to know how to navigate the whole system,” Clinton said. “It’s very challenging to be in this environment where you’re already a minority and where you know you’re going to be even more of a minority when you make it into the next stages of your career.”
According to Assistant Dean for Diversity in Medical School Education Felipe Perez, the program attempts to mitigate the impact of these challenges.
Perez, who serves as an advisor for residents and pre-med in the program, said he became involved with URM HMC because he understood firsthand how crucial mentorship can be in a young person’s career.
“Stanford has a lot of resources, but sometimes it’s hard to navigate all of them,” Perez said. “Sometimes you feel lost in the sea of all the beautiful things that Stanford has to offer, so having guidance in taking advantage of all the resources is so important.”
Co-director and pediatric intensive care medicine fellow Monica Ruiz added that the program seeks to fill a gap, which she characterized as a lack of formalized curricula centered around mentorship for underrepresented minorities at Stanford.
“We wanted to address this gap in a way that wouldn’t increase the burden of the minority tax that’s already placed on people of color in medicine,” Ruiz said. “We did so by creating circles where we have all levels of training involved — that way they feed off of each other and that tax is distributed amongst the group.”
Ruiz explained that the structure of the medical circle teaches individuals how to be both mentors and mentees as members progress through their medical careers. She said the program not only recruits but retains minority students in this pipeline.
URM HMC members said that their goals for the program were twofold: to bolster support for underrepresented minorities at every stage of their medical career, and to make progress towards a world in which the demography of physicians matches the patients they are serving.
“We need to have patients who feel comfortable speaking to physicians about their illness and their health,” Perez said. “If the patients aren’t able to trust the physician, they’re not going to take the medicine that’s prescribed, but if they have someone who they trust who looks like them and represents them, that physician will be able to provide more culturally appropriate care and the patient will do better.”
For many program leaders, the mission of the program is very close to home. Howard explained that as an African American, he is the first doctor in his family, but his mother always made sure his pediatrician growing up “was a Black male so I grew up with him as a role model for me, and I never questioned whether I could become a doctor.”
Associate Professor of Otolaryngology Tulio Valdez, who serves as a faculty lead on the project, said that he is used to being the only Hispanic person in the room. But he wants to change this narrative for generations to come.
“It’s only fair that our physicians represent the society we live in,” he said.
For Ruiz, getting involved with this program feels like a duty.
“I am where I am because people have stepped in to mentor me,” Ruiz added. “I get to live out plan A, where everything that I wished to do is exactly what I do today, I think that this program is a passionate obligation that I owe to the income trainees and medical professionals.”
The URM HMC program hosted its first event on April 21 — a panel of six underrepresented minority physicians talked about work life balance, dealing with imposter syndrome and navigating obstacles with over 100 attendees.
“The session itself was fruitful,” Ruiz said. “People stayed behind just to talk, which was an important step towards building community.”
Moving forward, program leaders hope to expand to include high school students.
“As you go through the pipeline from high school to undergrad, you tend to see a lot of attrition,” Howard said. “A lot of underrepresented minority students come from public schools that didn’t have strong science and math education, so these students may struggle with pre-med coursework.”
On the administrative side, Ruiz said that the program leaders are working on a proposal to present to the Office of Diversity Medical Education(ODME) to ask for their support to ensure that the program is sustainable.
“We can only truly achieve health equity when our doctors’ demographics match the patients we’re serving, and we’re not there at all,” Ruiz said. “Getting the right people in the room is vital, and we can do that by increasing diversity and fortifying that pipeline.”