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Building a more equitable pipeline of health care providers

School of Medicine grads describe benefits of pipeline programs, mentorships and scholarships.

Two Black female medical students checking a patient's blood pressure

By Polly Roberts

Ashley N. Williams, M.D.Ashley N. Williams, M.D., a VCU School of Medicine graduate, finished her last months of pediatric residency at Emory University in Atlanta at the height of the social unrest that defined 2020. Asked to chair the pediatric residency program’s diversity committee, she organized conversations for residents and attending physicians on racism and what it means to be an ally for people of color.

Williams’ leadership comes as no surprise to Donna H. Jackson, Ed.D., assistant dean for admissions and director of student outreach in the VCU School of Medicine.

In 2012, she recruited Williams, then an undergrad at VCU, to participate in the Division for Health Sciences Diversity’s inaugural Summer Academic Enrichment Program. The intense six-week program provides students with an academically rigorous experience that simulates the first year of dentistry, medicine, pharmacy or physical therapy instruction.

“What the students get from participating in the pipeline program is a sense of confidence that they can go to a health professions school and be successful,” Jackson says. “Along with that confidence comes being a leader. And if you’re a leader in one place, it’s just natural that it follows you.”

Williams, a scholarship recipient, went on to become the first Summer Academic Enrichment Program graduate to earn her M.D. from the VCU School of Medicine. Now practicing outside her hometown of Atlanta, she uses her experience to motivate her patients to pursue their goals.

“When I go into clinic and see a young Black girl or boy, I ask them what their plans are when they finish high school,” Williams says. “Seeing a Black physician gives them a physical representation of what they can accomplish in life. I make an effort to relay to my patients that I am just like them, and they, too, can accomplish their goals.”

VCU pipeline programs and scholarships improving access to medical school

Training doctors who reflect the diverse populations they serve is essential to the mission of the School of Medicine and VCU Health to improve health care for all. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, increased physician diversity is associated with greater access to care for racial and ethnic minorities, patients with low income, non-English speaking patients and people on Medicaid.

The School of Medicine and the
VCU Division for Health Sciences and Diversity offer a variety of pipeline programs to students in middle school through college. The programs are geared toward potential applicants whose background may limit their access to careers in health care.

In addition, the medical school has a longstanding commitment to financial assistance for students who face barriers to a medical education. In recent years, more than $1.5 million in school-funded, need-based scholarships has been awarded each year to lessen the burden of their student debt.

“We’ve been able to combine the preparation provided through our pipeline programs with financial support for some of those students who choose to come to the MCV Campus for their medical training,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “Financial assistance has been the key to opening the door for those students who face difficult challenges as they work toward their dream of becoming physicians.”

Dean’s Equity Scholarship dedicates $1M to minority access

Buckley has now committed an additional $1 million over four years to build a more diverse, inclusive and equitable community. Included in that is up to $600,000 to create the Dean’s Equity Scholarship, which helps eliminate barriers to access for School of Medicine students of all backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic status.

“Like communities across the nation, we’ve grappled with a global pandemic that has underscored health disparities and social inequities,” Buckley says. “Today, the importance of redoubling our efforts in this area could not be clearer. It’s immeasurably valuable to all our students — and to their future patients — to have a racially and culturally diverse student body.”

Housed at the 
MCV Foundation, the Dean’s Equity Scholarship will begin awarding scholarships this fall, providing immediate relief for deserving students.

Alumni and community members can join Buckley by making gifts directly to the Dean’s Equity Scholarship or by endowing a scholarship at the MCV Foundation.

“Gifts to a current fund like the Dean’s Equity Scholarship allow you to make a difference in the lives of today’s medical students,” says Brian Thomas, vice president and chief development officer at the MCV Foundation. “Because of its immediate nature, a current fund gift helps those who most need it, when they need it.”

Belcher recalls benefits of Project ACEe

Xavier W. Belcher, M.D.Psychiatrist Xavier W. Belcher, M.D., graduated from the School of Medicine in 2011. The Richmond native and Huguenot High alum recalls how fortunate he felt to receive scholarship assistance throughout medical school. His journey to the MCV Campus began in high school, with the School of Medicine’s Project ACEe. The pipeline program provides local high school students with the chance to learn about different aspects of medicine through workshops and mentorships.

The self-proclaimed “science nerd” says Project ACEe introduced him to the possibility of a career in medicine. “I’d always been curious about discovery and liked the hands-on aspect of science. Project ACEe helped solidify health care as my interest. Prior to that, I didn’t have any personal experience with a career in health care. None of my family members are in the field.”

Applying to medical school without a health professional in the family can prove daunting. Potential applicants may not have the means to contact a physician for shadowing opportunities, or they don’t realize the application process is 14 months compared to six months for undergraduates.

‘If not for my Black mentors, I wouldn’t be where I am today’

Belcher credits the connections he made through Project ACEe with helping him find mentor Wally R. Smith, M.D., whom he shadowed while a student at the University of Richmond. Smith, who holds the Florence Neal Cooper Smith Professorship of Sickle Cell Disease, serves as the scientific director of the VCU Center on Health Disparities and director of the VCU Health Adult Sickle Cell Program.

“It helped open the door to what it’s like as a Black man being a doctor and identifying directly with Dr. Smith,” Belcher says. “It’s from my experience with him that I ended up where I am now.”

The sickle cell research Belcher conducted under Smith, a nationally recognized expert in the field, sparked an interest in pain management that led him to study the cause of pain from a psychiatric perspective.

Williams, too, credits mentors

Like Belcher, Williams is the first physician in her family. Growing up in Atlanta, though, she saw Black doctors and dentists, who served as role models throughout her life. “They showed me what I could do. I wouldn’t have seen it as a possibility otherwise.”

On the MCV Campus, Williams, a scholarship recipient, found a mentor in pediatrician 
Stephanie N. Crewe, M.D., chair of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Crewe grew up in Richmond’s inner city and returned to her hometown after medical training. As a student in the medical school’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship Program, Williams shadowed Crewe in community clinics serving the city’s most vulnerable populations.

“If not for my Black mentors, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Williams says. “Having someone of color who has had similar experiences and can tell you what hurdles and mountains you might face speaks to the importance of increasing the number of underrepresented-in-medicine physicians. It gives you a feeling that you belong and you can accomplish something when you see someone who looks like you.”

Giving back to the community

Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that physicians of color are more likely to treat minority patients and practice in underserved communities. Sharing a racial or cultural background with one’s doctor promotes communication and trust.

“For some people, that can make or break what they’re comfortable sharing,” Belcher says. “Not having to deal with those initial barriers can be tremendously helpful.”

Both Belcher and Williams always planned to serve underrepresented populations.

“I felt it nothing short of a necessity that I, as a Black woman, give back to the community the best way I can and be an advocate for my patients and their health,” says Williams, whose  practice includes patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“People from certain communities tend to go back and help people in those communities,” Belcher says. “We are living in a world with disparities in how we deliver care. Investing in people who will target underserved communities will only improve the health outcomes we are all striving for.”

The medical school’s Jackson says pipeline programs help prepare students for such work.

“We share with students the reasons those barriers exist, the responsibility to understand and advocate for those who lack access, and the resources to help them assist their patients in overcoming those barriers. If, as a result, they choose to then work in communities that are most affected in that way, then that just becomes an additional benefit of what they have learned through the pipeline.”

Equity scholarships are another means to bring those benefits full circle — for aspiring physicians and their future patients.

“When you talk about more money for equity scholarships, you’re talking about changing someone’s life,” Williams says. “But it goes beyond that because you’re also talking about the impact they’ll have on their patients’ lives. They can go back into the communities and do the best they can to bring about improved health access and outcomes.”

Learn more about our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion at VCU Health and at VCU School of Medicine. Find out more about pipeline programs in the health sciences offered through the VCU Division for Health Sciences Diversity.


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