Did COVID-19 thwart medical school diversity pathway programs?

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published November 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders in healthcare recognize that racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among HCPs creates greater access to care, as well as higher-quality care, for medically underserved populations.

  • To promote a diverse physician workforce, diversity pathway programs have been established in academic institutions across the US. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, significantly disrupted these programs, research shows.

  • One strategy that residents can employ to promote diversity in the medical workforce is mentorship of high school students from communities underrepresented in medicine who are interested in healthcare careers.

Expanding access to high-quality healthcare in the US has become a major priority for health organizations like the AMA.[] One way to achieve this is by diversifying the physician workforce, which academic institutions have promoted through diversity pathway programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, may have compromised these programs, according to research published by JAMA Network Open in 2022.[] As researchers discover how the pandemic has affected diversity pathway programs, residents may play a key role in securing diversity among physicians through peer mentorship.

Role of diversity pathway programs

Medical publications have long voiced the need for greater diversity among physicians.

This call to action reached a height during 2020, when the death of George Floyd brought national attention to the systemic oppression faced by Black people in healthcare and beyond.

“What led me to this specialty and disease-site specialization was the firsthand observation that Black men in the US suffer the highest incidence of prostate cancer globally and have a death rate twice that of White men, and the apparent ignorance of or apathy about these disparities that I perceived during my training,” radiation oncologist Curtiland Deville Jr., MD wrote in a 2020 article published by JAMA Internal Medicine.[]

"The recent health disparities and inequities during the [COVID-19] pandemic and the blatant racial and social injustices that have caused multiple Black lives to be unnecessarily killed before our eyes have also affirmed my passion and call to workforce diversity as a means to address health equity."

Curtiland Deville, Jr., MD, JAMA Internal Medicine

In response to the call for greater diversity in the physician workforce, many academic institutions have established diversity pathway programs, also known as enrichment, pipeline, or pre-professional programs.

But these programs, which involve mentorship, academic enrichment, financial support, psychosocial support, and career exposure opportunities, are losing steam, according to the JAMA Network Open article. The primary suspect? COVID-19.

Related: Healthcare equity: What can doctors do?

COVID-19’s effect on diversity pathway programs

To determine the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on these programs, investigators developed a survey using input from 12 administrators and leaders of diversity pathway programs at medical, osteopathic, and allopathic schools. It was sent to nearly 200 schools, of which 112 responded.

The results, included in the 2022 JAMA Network Open article, showed a general decrease in diversity pathway programming since the emergence of COVID-19, compared with the year prior—nearly 40% of the schools had reduced their pathway programs.

Changes in funding were reported.

Of the 106 schools that kept their programs going throughout the pandemic, 23 (21.7%) reported reduced funding (including support withheld or scheduled for a later time) during COVID-19. The majority, however (67.0%), had no change in funding, and nine of the schools (8.5%) reported an uptick in funding.

Certain aspects of the programs occurred less frequently during the pandemic—particularly shadowing, internships, and other hands-on experiences. The absence of these opportunities can be especially hard on students underrepresented in medicine (URiM); shadowing, for example, is frequently required for medical school admission.

The findings of this study suggest that COVID-19 disrupted diversity pathway programs in medical schools, the long-term effects of which will require further research.

Related: The critical issue putting doctors' careers and patients' lives at risk

Mentorship matters

In the wake of COVID-19’s impact on diversity pathway programs, research points to mentorship as a strategy that clinicians in training can use to foster diversity in the physician workforce.

According to a study published by the Journal of the National Medical Association, mentorship is a tried-and-true method for facilitating personal and professional development.[]

The study examined the mentor-mentee relationships between medical students and high school protégés through the University of Michigan Doctors of Tomorrow program. The researchers wrote that effective mentorship was marked by regular contact (both in-person and electronic), shared non-academic interests, and commitment to a prolonged relationship.

However, the study found that students from URiM communities often lacked access to mentors. The researchers suggested that by engaging in near-peer mentorship with URiM high school students, medical students may help their mentees cultivate an interest in pursuing healthcare careers.

This, in turn, may effectively promote diversity in the physician workforce—and pave the way to improved healthcare for all.

What this means for you

Diversity in the physician workforce is crucial to meeting the needs of medically underserved populations. To foster diversity in physician training, academic institutions have established diversity pathway programs for medical students—but many of these programs experienced setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they restructure, mentorships between medical students or residents and high school students from URiM communities can be a valuable asset in promoting healthcare careers.

Read Next: Real Talk: Why we need diversity in medicine

Caring During COVID speaks directly to clinicians who are still facing the realities of the pandemic. Each week we feature perspectives, lessons, research, guidance, and more. Submit any question or topic you'd like to see covered, and let us know if you’d like to be a guest author.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter