A med student shares 10 ways schools can better attract diverse students to study primary care

  • Darian Dozier is an osteopathic medical student and creator of the medical school admissions blog Melanated and Meducated.
  • She says medical schools can do more to attract diverse students interested in practicing primary care.
  • Recruiting students from rural areas and offering loan repayment options can help lower the barrier to entry. 
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One of the most common mission statements I noticed on my path to medical school was many schools’ determination to produce more primary care physicians (PCPs). PCPs are doctors that you see for checkups and are usually the first stop if you need a recommendation for a specialist. PCPs are integral to the healthcare system, but there is a shortage due to low compensation, their hectic lifestyle, and mountains of paperwork. 

PCPs get a bad reputation next to some of the higher grossing and better lifestyle specialties like radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, and dermatology. But, without PCPs, millions of patients would be left without a healthcare provider, subjecting them to poor health maintenance and missed diagnoses. 

In order for the number of PCPs to increase, medical schools can take some steps to help increase the number of students interested in primary care and put them in a better position to be successful on their journey. 

1. Be mindful of costs

Medical school is expensive. Most state schools try to mitigate these costs by giving large discounts to in-state students, but out-of-state and private medical schools still come with a hefty price tag. 

My school’s main goal is to produce PCPs to service rural areas, yet the tuition is $55,000, excluding living expenses. Debt and loan repayment are constantly on my mind and add to my daily stress levels as an aspiring doctor. It can be difficult to convince students to pay a lot of money in tuition, then encourage them to enter a field where the average salary might be $130,000, which less than other types of doctors can make.

If schools really want to push their students into primary care, then tuition and fees should be manageable so students can begin their careers in a manageable financial position.

2. Offer scholarships or loan repayment options 

There are many national incentives to increase the number of loan repayments. like the National Health Service Corps and state-led programs. Medical schools can also join this initiative and provide scholarships or loan repayment options for those who decide to go into primary care. This will incentivize students to really consider the field without money being a deterrent. 

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3. Recruit students from rural areas 

PCP shortage is most notable in rural areas. These are places where the population to physician ratio is at least 3,500 to 1, often small towns or disadvantaged communities that may disinterest physicians for many reasons. If medical schools can make a conscious effort to recruit students from those areas, they may have better luck at training physicians who are comfortable and actually desire to practice in these areas, perhaps returning to their hometowns.

4. Add cultural competency and diversity to mission statements and curriculum 

PCPs work with a myriad of patients from different backgrounds. It’s really important that these physicians be culturally competent and diverse. Lack of diversity in the medical field is an ongoing problem, but schools can combat this by being intentional about adding diversity and cultural competency to their curriculum and school environment.

This will attract  students from diverse backgrounds, and will help schools produce a diverse graduating class who performs better in primary care settings. Higher ratings in primary care will help schools attract students genuinely interested in practicing as a PCP. 

5. Launch more community outreach and research initiatives in primary care 

Misconceptions about primary care based on stereotypes and misrepresentations may be one of the most impactful deterrents for medical students. If schools offer more community outreach experiences, students can gain exposure to this area to help generate interest.

Also, graduating with research experience is very important, so by offering research in primary care, students can research something they’re passionate about, while also strengthening their CV. 

6. Widen admissions criteria 

Medical school is quite selective, which automatically weeds out some potentially good candidates who were just lacking the resources to achieve high standardized test scores and grades. Some of these candidates instead may boast years of experience, have had major impacts on their communities, etc.

Medical schools should open the door for students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who show a passion for community health, but may not have perfect grades and scores. More holistic approaches that focus on intentions, rather than academic achievements exclusively, will help schools find these students.   

7. Offer pipeline and prep courses 

Pipeline programs that offer matriculation into medical school after completing prerequisite classes are also another way that schools can reach disadvantaged students who would make great PCPs. Standardized testing and grades can be the biggest financial and academic hurdle for these students. But if medical schools can help prepare these students, then those barriers are no longer a problem. 

If students show the potential to be great PCPs, yet are weak in an area of their application, these programs could help bolster those areas and give these students an opportunity to excel in med school. 

Read more: The founder of a consumer health app pitched to 500 VCs with no luck before she raised $7.2 million in funding. 4 strategies helped her turn the tide.

8. Collaborate with secondary and higher education institutions to provide better resources for students 

In addition to bridge programs, medical schools can also work with local high schools and undergraduate universities to better equip faculty and staff to direct students towards a successful medical school application. High school counselors and premed advisors can be very useful to students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds.

If med schools can collaborate with these institutions, then their staff will know how to guide students interested in medicine. 

9. Provide financial counseling

Many students come out of undergrad with educational loans. These loans may be the sole reason that those interested in medicine either don’t pursue it, or if they do they don’t pursue primary care.

If schools provide financial counseling of repayment options and budgeting, potential students may feel more confident in their ability to avoid drowning in debt. Also, having PCPs speak about their own financial situation can help students have a better idea of their ability to pay off student loans. 

10. Host career days for exposure to primary care   

Career days may be the best way for students to get an idea of what PCPs do and excite them for a future career. Medical schools could host them at high schools or colleges for an immersive experience. This exposure could benefit students and greatly increase their interest in primary care from an earlier age. This way, they can be inspired through hands-on interaction and begin to picture themselves in this career one day. 

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