Mentoring Program Gives Baltimore Students a Taste of Real World Medicine

Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith , MD

Emergency Physician, Saint Agnes Hospital

Published June 20, 2016

The long journey to a career as a health professional starts in high school. At this stage, there are big choices to make. What classes should I take? Where should I apply to college? Is this really the right field for me?

Almost everyone — myself included — needs support and encouragement to navigate the education maze. Believe me, if certain people hadn't mentored me, pointed me toward useful organizations, connected me with opportunities to gain clinical experience, quizzed me on the MCAT, reminded me to request my recommendation letters, prepped me for my interviews, and who knows what else, I'd never have made it to medical school.

Young people in underprivileged communities have an especially tough road. In many cases, they're the first person in the family to consider college. Their teachers and counselors may be overextended, their only source of funding may be a part-time, minimum wage job, and they have few opportunities to interact with doctors, nurses, and technicians beyond the patient role.

That's why I'm proud to announce a new mentoring program for urban high school students at the Saint Agnes Hospital ED in Baltimore. In today's post, I'll describe how we got started, our hopes for the students, and how mentorship benefits the hospital and community.

Paying It Forward

Mentorship has always been close to my heart. As a medical student and leader in the Student National Medical Association, I worked with undergraduates who were interested in applying to medical school. And as a resident, I helped conduct medical workshops for local high school students. The students had a great experience with the residents and attending physicians who participated. They learned about the effects of tobacco, practiced suture techniques, and learned the basics of CPR.

After I joined Vituity and Saint Agnes Hospital, I felt moved to help young people in the local community. Saint Agnes is located in West Baltimore, which is a very historic African-American neighborhood. It's long been a hotbed of culture and civil rights activism (A local woman named Irene Morgan refused to give up her bus seat 11 years before Rosa Parks. Her case made it to the Supreme Court).

Unfortunately, these days, Baltimore is better known for the death of Freddie Gray, the resulting civil unrest, and its record-setting murder rate. Poverty is rampant, living conditions are poor, and public health metrics are substandard.

Both Vituity and Saint Agnes were impacted by the violence and were interested in fostering hope and healing. So with the support of former ED Chair Pascal Crosley, DO, and incoming chair Jon Falck, MD, I pitched my idea to some Saint Agnes administrators.

In addition to helping the students, I thought a mentorship program might have benefits for the hospital. In the ED, it's really important to quickly establish rapport and trust. But this can be tough to do, because most patients only see us when the worst happens. I hoped that welcoming high school students into our department would give the larger community a window into our work. They'd hear about our daily triumphs and struggles — and how much we care for our patients.

The response of the administration was overwhelmingly positive. Anne Buening, Vice President of Mission Integration, and Michelle Slafkovsky, Director of Volunteer Services, stepped up to champion the cause. It was Anne who pointed us toward the high school that became our partner.

Laying the Groundwork

Green Street Academy is a public charter school in West Baltimore that focuses on pre-professional preparation. Students explore their career interests by gaining real-life experience in businesses in the community. The school was excited to add Saint Agnes to its list of partners.

We met with the school's leadership. Everyone agreed that our first priority was for the students to succeed academically. Executive Director Dan Schochor, PhD, led the selection of 12 students who had both an interest in healthcare careers and a strong academic record.

After meeting with the leadership, physicians, PAs, NPs, nurses, and technicians were identified for the students to shadow. It takes a kind of special person to bring healthcare down to the high school level. The students don't really need to know the pathophysiology of COPD, but they do benefit from seeing what smoking does to different organs and systems. And of course, they need mentors who enjoy teaching and genuinely care about them as people.

Before the go-live date, I met with all the students to break the ice and hear about their hopes for the program. Several were interested in medicine, nursing, and healthcare administration. Some weren't sure what they wanted to do. We talked about how that was OK, and how the whole experience was about exploring options.

Real World Medicine

We weren't really sure what to expect on the students' first day. Our goal was to give them a big picture view of healthcare and how different service lines work together. We also wanted them to see how medicine is practiced in the real world as opposed to on TV and in popular media.

For the past couple of weeks, the students have been coming in three afternoons a week. They're separated into small groups that rotate between medicine (physicians, PAs, and NPs), nursing, diagnostic imaging, and laboratory services. They observe procedures, ultrasounds, CT scans, MRIs, blood draws, lab tests, and reporting. We emphasize teamwork and that every position has an important role to play.

The mentors have really enjoyed the program. The students are very engaged and ask lots of questions. What if I want to be this kind of nurse? How can I get more experience in the ED? What does this mean on the X-ray? Some of them have already asked if we can extend the program into the summer.

In the future, we hope to offer some sessions on choosing a college, making a strong application, and planning for the first year. We also hope to track the students over time once they graduate from the program. What education did they complete? What careers did they choose? Of course, staying in touch will allow us to continue answering questions and supporting them over the long term.

Behind Every Success Story

Our mentorship program is still in its early stages, but I'm very excited about its possibilities.

I strongly believe that everyone should have a fair chance to develop a career they enjoy. However, those who lack guidance and support are at a huge disadvantage. It's tough and tiring to do everything on your own. Even when someone thinks they're succeeding alone, nine times out of 10, there's actually a champion in the background quietly helping them along.

Hopefully we can connect these students with the knowledge and resources they need to go the distance. Who knows? Maybe in the future we will see some back at the hospital, as employees, giving the same encouragement and experiences to other volunteers. This would be an incredible gift to this community.

Partnering to improve patient lives

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