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Minnesota's Future Doctors students visit the Dental School

College students in the Minnesota's Future Doctors program get a close up and personal look at the science and art of dentistry during a visit to the University's Dental School.

Tapping a new pool of doctors

Students interested in rural medicine or from underrepresented groups taste the medical life

By Deane Morrison

July 3, 2007

As an immigrant to the United States from Liberia in 2001, Georgette McCauley has seen more than her share of turmoil. But there's one thing in particular she would like to change in her home country: young women's lack of health information. "I'd like to go back to Liberia someday and educate young women on how to prevent sexual disease and how to take better care of their bodies," says McCauley, who has just completed her freshman year at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. She is one of 23 Minnesota college students in a new joint program of the University's Medical School and Mayo Medical School to help increase the numbers of minority, immigrant and rural doctors in the state. Called Minnesota's Future Doctors, the program is the brainchild of two U medical students, Gareth Forde and Matt Fitzpatrick. It brings in high-ability students during the summer and the academic year to learn about topics like the science behind medicine and how to take the Medical College Admission Test. This summer's inaugural group has already toured the Mayo Clinic and UMD's Medical School, worked on a volunteer project, and shadowed doctors to see how medicine is practiced on a daily basis. "[Forde and Fitzpatrick] wanted to create future classmates who were more reflective of Minnesota," says program director Jo Peterson. "This project aims at narrowing the disparity and increasing the percentage of persons of color. "The reason that's important is that persons who work with doctors within their same cultural values [and] community of color feel they have better health care, and they continue to work with that doctor." Students are chosen in their freshman year and work with program staff through the rest of their undergraduate careers. They can spend either three summers or three academic years in the program, honing their skills and familiarizing themselves with the needs of underserved populations. Thuy Nguyen-Tran knows such needs first-hand. The daughter of parents who immigrated from Vietnam, she learned Vietnamese from them. "I know there might not be enough translators for Vietnamese people," she says. "There should be more health professionals who can help spread information [to nonnative English speakers].

"I've never been around so many different cultures at once," enthuses McCauley. "It's exciting to hear about the other cultures and to share mine."

A student at UMTC, Nguyen-Tran volunteers at a crisis nursery, where she cooks breakfast for children of parents going through some kind of difficulty. Most of the kids are six or younger, a group Nguyen-Tran enjoys because she hopes to become a pediatrician. While Asians are slightly overrepresented among Minnesota physicians (see sidebar), Hmong and Vietnamese are underrepresented. Besides Nguyen-Tran, this summer's Future Doctors group includes three Hmong students.

By the numbers

Percentages of physicians in Minnesota don't reflect the strengths of minority communities.

American Indian: 2% of population, 0.7% of physicians

Asian: 4% of population, 7% of physicians (although Hmong and Vietnamese are underrepresented)

Black/African American: 5% of population, 1% of physicians

Latino: 4 percent of population, 2 percent of physicians

White: 85% of population, 86% of physicians

Source: AAMC report 2006 and Minnesota Department of Health 2007

For Jonna Maas, a UMM student from Walnut Grove (pop. ca. 500), one of the best things about the program was hearing from medical students. They clued the younger students in on what to expect when interviewing at medical schools to which they've applied. "They told us interview questions to look out for," Maas says. "For example, an interviewer may ask, 'What do you think about [some particular issue] in medicine,' so it's good to be prepared about all kinds of things in the news." Among the hands-on activities for the students was a stint working with a lifelike dental patient simulator (not "dummy," thank you). Guided by advanced dental students, the younger students tried their hand at applying dental sealants and, of course, drilling. Michael Madden, interim dean of admissions at the University's Dental School, exhorted them to be careful with sealants. As most of the sealant material hardens, the top layer remains liquid. And boy, does it taste awful. Message: Get rid of it before the patient's tongues touches it. Otherwise, said Madden, "the patient may gag. Or even leave a deposit of material in your chair for you to clean up, and you want to avoid that." Dental student Katie Cargill says that she has worked before with groups of potential dentists who use the simulators. "You can really tell who has natural ability with their hands," she observes. Besides the introduction to medicine, the students appreciate meeting and getting to know each other. "I've never been around so many different cultures at once," enthuses McCauley. "It's exciting to hear about the other cultures and to share mine." Another thing that impressed her was a family practitioner she shadowed at a local clinic. "I noticed he kept everything on a very professional level," she says. "He didn't get too personal. He listened very carefully to patients' needs and gave advice." For his part, co-founder Fitzpatrick praises Peterson for her "fantastic" job running the program and finds the inaugural group impressive. "They're pretty inspirational at this stage," he says. "It's nice to think what they're capable of doing." Read all about the Minnesota's Future Doctors program here.