An Inclusive Approach to Caring for a Diverse Community
Ten years ago, OhioHealth leaders took a close look at the medical staff and saw an opportunity to better reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.
This realization led them to create the Physician Diversity Scholars program, which has continued to grow and garner recognition as the only program of its kind in the United States.
"Talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not," says Program Director Nanette Lacuesta, MD, OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital. "We are taking great strides with intentional programming to support underrepresented students. It's also a commitment to living our value of Inclusion."
The program pairs mentors from across OhioHealth with medical students attending Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine and The Ohio State University College of Medicine. The aspiring physicians learn from their mentors about building a career in medicine, and can ask questions to guide their own path.
Dr. Lacuesta, who is a first-generation Filipino-American, has the unique perspective of benefitting from the program as a student, mentor, associate program director and now director the program. She knows firsthand the value of a program helping underrepresented students thrive.
"Medical students value mentors who look like them, but more importantly, students tell us they value a mentor who cares about them," says Dr. Lacuesta.
That's exactly what Isaiah Rolle, DO, PhD, a resident at Riverside Methodist, was looking for in a mentor.
"I didn't know anything about OhioHealth at the time, but I knew I wanted mentorship," says Dr. Rolle, whose interest in neuroscience led to his paring with BJ Hicks, MD, vascular neurologist and co-director, Comprehensive Stroke Program, Riverside Methodist.
Dr. Rolle, who was raised in Harlem by a single mom, has never experienced true mentorship.
"I went from a historically black college to a graduate school program where I was the only black person in class, and that was an adjustment," he recalls. "It's pretty sad, but only a few faculty members took interest in me over five-and-a-half years."
The mentorship program at OhioHealth is what helped Dr. Rolle choose Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine for his medical degree.
"There are not many minority staff physicians who students or residents can automatically hitch their wagon to," says Dr. Hicks. "But as they go through the rigors of medical school and training, they benefit from someone who looks like them, who takes a vested interest in them and who cares about them."
The Physician Diversity Scholars program schedules group events for participants, service projects, and offers the bond of one-on-one engagement as students experience the pressures of medical school and residency.
"Mentorship could be a one-time conversation with a student or, like in the case of Dr. Rolle, it could grow into a long-term relationship," says Dr. Hicks. "I just know I need to make myself available so they can pick my brain and figure out for themselves what they want to do in medicine."
An undeniable impact
The Physician Diversity Scholars program recently hit its growth stride. Applicants from last year to this year more than doubled, from 16 to 35, with the program expanding from nine to 15 accepted students. The program is attracting a class reflecting the diversity of the nation, while also attracting a diverse group of mentors. And no other mentorship program in the nation intentionally pairs a professional development curriculum with a community service component. The program also offers student loan forgiveness for scholars who become staff physicians after residency.
But according to Dr. Lacuesta, none of these metrics or benefits are what drives the program.
"We're doing this for patient outcomes," she says. "When patients identify with their physician, trust goes up and patient outcomes are better."
Roberto Perez, a native Venezuelan and second-year student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine who is mentored by Carlos Sanchez, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Riverside Methodist, sees this cultural and relational connection play out when shadowing Dr. Sanchez.
"Diversity in healthcare can impact quality of care because there is that familiarity, that ability to better communicate with a patient who shares a similar background and gain more in-depth information that otherwise may not come out or get lost in translation," says Roberto.
As an example, he references how in Latino cultures, consumption of a particular ethnic soup high in salt might trigger a medical decision or diet adjustment recommendation that a provider without that cultural knowledge might not know.
As Roberto sees the intended outcomes of what the program seeks to address long term, he's also a recipient of its immediate intent. The 23-year-old looks after his two brothers, 21 and 19, and is the legal guardian of his youngest brother. They're all pursuing an education while their parents remain in Venezuela.
"Roberto is a passionate young student, and I love that about him," says Dr. Sanchez, who is originally from Guatemala. "I want to empower him to find his own path, to be the best version of himself."
Dr. Sanchez recalls a phone conversation with Roberto's father in Venezuela. He was encouraged and given permission to "do whatever you need to do" to help Roberto.
"Our relationship has evolved nicely outside of medicine," says Dr. Sanchez.
Their shared Latino heritage led Dr. Sanchez and his wife to invite Roberto and his brothers to Thanksgiving and Christmas, times when they would naturally miss being with family.
"We wanted to make the holiday special for them, so we surprised the boys by coordinating a personal note from their parents," says Dr. Sanchez. "It was very emotional."
"To me, the Physician Diversity Scholars program exemplifies the kind of respect, kindness, hope and appreciation for others I wish to see in the world," says Dr. Sanchez.
OhioHealth physicians need only the desire to mentor. The rest will take care of itself with the help of this one-of-a-kind program.
This story was originally published in an internal OhioHealth associate publication.