For minorities, becoming a doctor shouldn’t be a reach to the moon

A pediatrician and his patient

As a child growing up in rural southwest Georgia during the Great Depression, Louis W. Sullivan said there were only two doctors in his town. Both were white and they had separate waiting rooms for their white and black patients.

When he was five-years-old, Sullivan met the only black physician in southwest Georgia at that time, and after that life-changing experience he decided he wanted to become a doctor himself. But now Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services, writes in Health Affairs that he worries the high cost of medical school is putting the dream of becoming a doctor out of reach for many minority students.

Despite his family’s modest means, Sullivan fulfilled his dream of becoming a doctor with the help of scholarship money and went on to become founding dean of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta before serving as the country’s secretary of health and human services from 1989 to 1993. But Sullivan now says that the country needs to make it possible for more minorities to pursue careers as doctors and other healthcare professionals.

When he graduated from Boston University School of Medicine, where he was the only black student in his class, Sullivan said he had only $500 in educational debt, which he was able to pay off by the end of his internship year. Today, medical school tuitions are in the “stratosphere,” costing as much as $60,000 a year, he says. With high tuitions and limited scholarship money, it is now common for medical students to have as much as $150,000 to $250,000 in debt.

With that reality, many college students, especially minority students from low-income families, are discouraged from even applying to medical school, he says. The result is the ratio of culturally competent providers is falling.

“When minority students give up their dream of becoming a doctor or other health professional, they are depriving themselves; depriving future patients who would benefit from having a more ethnically and racially diverse healthcare workforce; and depriving the nation of the contributions they could make to improving their lives, their community and the country,” says Sullivan.

The country’s health professions schools must work to avoid increasing tuition, he says, and secure funds from public and private sources to help keep costs down for students and their families. Scholarship programs and other initiatives that help students--particularly those committed to working in primary care and willing to practice in rural and medically underserved areas--must be increased, says Sullivan, who is chair of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions in the District of Columbia.

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