WMU News

Boosting number of minorities in health care professions

Oct. 12, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- The strategic plan for a program led by Western Michigan University designed to increase the number of minorities in the health professions is being used as a national model for similar programs.

Since its inception, the program has developed a close, supportive relationship with Kalamazoo Pubic Schools, community health professionals and schools involved in teaching the health professions. Other partners include the Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and the Kalamazoo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Now entering its fourth year, the Kalamazoo Health Professions Partnership Initiative has been praised for its innovative use of volunteerism and collaboration. Its recently revamped strategic plan is now being used as a prototype by other programs around the country.

"It was quite a heady experience to be chosen for this, especially when you consider the financial limitations that we have," says Janice Wilson, the program's manager. "It was very encouraging."

The program's success was further affirmed during a May 26 visit by representatives from the national project office in Washington, D.C.

The effort, one of 26 such programs in the nation, is part of a national strategy to boost underrepresented minorities enrolled in medical, nursing and allied health professional degree programs. It is coordinated by the WMU Bronson School of Nursing and began in 1998 when the nursing school, then under the direction of Dr. Bernadine Lacey, was awarded a grant through the Association of American Medical Colleges, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

The program works by giving minority students basic exposure to the health professions as early as the seventh grade. By the time students reach high school and the program begins in earnest, they become part of a cohort of students that moves through the program together.

At each grade level, from grades seven through the college years, students participate in program-sponsored activities that, when completed, will prepare them to obtain health professions degrees, certification and licensure. Activities focus on professional opportunities and requirements, followed by assessment, counseling, parent involvement, mentoring, job shadowing, enhanced academic and laboratory experiences, health occupations coursework and internships.

"Most of the activity that takes place is due to in-kind contributions and donations of time," Wilson says. "It's definitely a volunteer effort. Obviously, the people at the national level were impressed that we could do so much with so little."

Upon graduating from high school, it is hoped students will decide to enter health-related fields and choose to earn their degrees at WMU, Wilson says. However, they can opt to go to another school or decline to enter the health field.

"We try to keep them focused and give them direction so that when the come to WMU, they will be ready to enter a health-related program and, in most cases, have some of their prerequisites already out of the way," Wilson says. "We want them to be able to make an intelligent and informed choice and be ready to enter a college-level program successfully."

Wilson says it's important to foster greater minority representation in the health fields. Close to 42 percent of students in Kalamazoo Public Schools are African American, yet less than 6 percent will enter the health care profession. In addition, less than 2 percent of Latinos and less than 1 percent of Native Americans will pursue health care careers.

The number of baby boomers who will need health care will explode in the coming years, Wilson adds. It's important for health care providers to mirror the diversity of patients who will require care. Studies show patients will receive better care and will more actively maintain their health if cared for by someone from their peer group.

Wilson credits Kalamazoo Schools' Superintendent Janice Brown, along with support from Dr. Marie Gates, director of the school of nursing, with helping to make the program a success. Wilson has discovered a wealth of high-quality school-to-career programs in health care in the KPS curriculum. The KHPPI has piggy-backed on those programs.

"We have an advantage over many other HPPI sites in that Dr. Brown and her administrative staff have collaborated with us and have allowed us to work closely with their teachers and students," Wilson says. "This has been a key element in the project's strategic plan and we are grateful for the support they have given the initiative."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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