Pipeline program expanded to increase health care workforce diversity

Contact: Joel Krauss

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A program aimed at improving primary care and increasing diversity in health care professions is expanding. Building on the success of its inaugural year in 2021, the West Michigan Health Careers Pipeline Program (HCPP) will double its capacity, introducing dozens of West Michigan high school students from underrepresented and minority populations to a variety of careers in health care fields. The program represents a partnership including the Western Michigan University College of Health and Human Services, Spectrum Health and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Starting in February, a cohort of ninth and 10th graders from West Michigan high schools will meet weekly (and virtually) with undergraduate mentor students from health-related programs at Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State University. The seven-week mentorship program is focused on health career exploration, college readiness and leadership skills development. Participants engage in activities and discussions to introduce various health careers to students, while allowing their college mentors to discuss their own experiences working toward those careers.

Dr. TaLawnda Bragg, internal medicine hospitalist at Spectrum Health, speaks with students. Bragg is a first-generation college student, the first physician in her family and alumnus of Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where several program participants attend.

“Our goal is to empower these students to pursue careers in the health professions and help them develop a passion for and sustained pursuit of education in the health sciences by connecting them with university students who have been in their shoes,” says Andrea Miller, program coordinator and manager of recruitment and outreach at Western's College of Health and Human Services. “There are students at WMU and GVSU who have been exactly where these high school students are. We want to show them that there are programs in college that can lead to great careers in health-related fields. We want to show them that students just like them are already there to show them the way.”

“We’re grateful for the support of Spectrum Health to make this program a reality, and we’re excited about the impact it’s having,” says Dr. Ron Cisler, dean of Western's College of Health and Human Services. “These are first-generation college students, students from medically underserved areas, students of color; these students reflect our communities, and they make our colleges stronger. When they graduate, they’ll make our health care professions stronger too.”

“The last two years have illustrated the need for programs like this,” says Dr. Paul Jaklitsch, president of Medical Staff Services of Spectrum Health, which has pledged a total of $50,000 over five years to support the program. Funding will be used to purchase all materials needed for students in the program. “We are all interested in a variety of ways to bring more and varied professionals into the health care system.”

Students from the MSU College of Human Medicine are also involved in the program, working on curriculum development. While they earn service-learning credit for their participation, the interprofessional and collaborative aspects of the project serve the students well, preparing them for life after graduation.

“Because MSU College of Human Medicine is a community-based medical school, part of our mission is to promote outreach. This program allows our students to be more involved in our community,” says Dr. Lisa Lowery, assistant dean for diversity and cultural initiatives at MSU College of Human Medicine and section chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “The program provides a great professional experience for our medical students and also highlights for them the value and importance of community service.”

Program expansion

A doctor works on a mannequin in an emergency medicine simulation lab.

Dr. Yeoshina Pillay, an emergency medicine resident, streams from Spectrum Health's clinical simulation lab, introducing students to emergency health skills.

Ongoing financial support from Spectrum Health allowed the program to double in size this year, increasing from 25 high school students to 50—along with 50 undergraduate mentors from WMU and GVSU. But program leaders understand that getting students into programs like this is only the beginning.

“One of the biggest barriers with pipeline programming is furthering the students through the pipeline. For example, many programs enroll students in a multi-week program, but then lose them afterward,” says Dr. Nicholas Cozzi, program co-founder and emergency medicine physician. “The goal is to identify and craft a personalized growth plan for each high school student in the pipeline and identify the next opportunity to further them toward a health career. Keeping them in the pipeline, empowering them toward a health career.”

With that in mind, Miller, Cozzi and Cisler also developed a grant to obtain additional funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation to expand the program for 2022. With the additional funding, Western and MSU will engage with students from last year’s cohort to provide them with hands-on mentorship and job shadowing opportunities to increase networking, personal growth and leadership qualities.

“We are thrilled to continue our support of the HCPP and to see how it will continue to grow over time,” says Dr. Ken Johnson, former president of Medical Staff Services of Spectrum Health. “It’s important to support these students embarking on this path, and we know it’s making the West Michigan workforce stronger, which helps all of us.”

“We couldn’t do this without the support of community partners like Medical Staff Services of Spectrum Health,” adds Cisler. “Their financial support allows us to offer this program to these students completely free, removing the greatest single barrier for programs like this one.”

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