Winter 2017

Ever More Diverse

Harris BermanBack when I was in medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in the early 1960s, the world was different and medical school was different, too. I think we had about five women in our class of 120, and one or two minority students at most. My class was overwhelmingly white men—that much I can say for sure.

But in order to be effective, medicine has had to move away from that old model of where doctors came from, what they’d grown up with and, culturally speaking, what they knew. Otherwise, the gap between doctor and patient would grow wider every day, and that in turn would diminish the quality of our doctor-patient relationships.

Here at Tufts, we want to produce doctors who patients will be comfortable visiting, doctors who look like the society around them. It’s that simple, and that complex. We have worked hard and steadily in recent years to improve the diversity of our entering class, and those efforts are starting to pay off.

I am pleased to report that 16 percent of this fall’s entering class, a total of 34 students, are from racial and ethnic minorities classified as underrepresented in medicine (URM). They are students who identify themselves as black or African American, Hispanic, Native American or Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Seven years ago, that number was 6 percent.

We seem to have hit on a good formula for diversifying our medical school. Putting more time and energy in at the interview stage is an obvious first step. It may surprise you to learn that in 2014, Tufts School of Medicine ranked third in the nation for the number of minority applicants interviewed, according to U.S. News & World Report. We have been aggressive in our recruitment efforts. But we have also begun to think in a more nuanced way about how we evaluate our applicants.

Joyce Sackey, the medical school’s dean for multicultural affairs and global health, is deeply involved in our assessment of applicants. She tells me that the main question comes down to this: How do you size them up? She likens it to the undergraduate admission process that tries to identify the best potential students in a pile of applications. “If you look just at the SAT score, you’re going to miss all kinds of deserving kids,” she says.

Applicants may look undistinguished on paper but prove dazzling once you meet them. “They come in, and they wow you,” Sackey has told me. “You can see that they’re going to be great, humane doctors.”

Other cases may require more patience on the part of those conducting the interview. Sackey tells me she may ask a URM applicant this simple question: How did you prepare for the MCAT? It may turn out the individual was distracted by having to work at a full-time job prior to the test date, or perhaps lacked the money for a test-preparation course.

Ingrained cultural issues may be harder to detect. Sackey uses the hypothetical example of a female applicant who arrives for the interview but doesn’t have much to say. “She was awfully quiet; I wasn’t too impressed with her,” an interviewer may tell the admissions committee later. The applicant may have come from a culture where women are discouraged from speaking up, Sackey notes, and this should be taken into consideration.

David Neumeyer, our dean for admissions, is delighted to see the progress we’ve made on diversity. “We have improved substantially in this area,” he says, “and I’m most encouraged because the changes we’ve made are not transient; rather, we’ve made a positive culture change within the whole school.” URM students are more apt to serve community needs, he points out. In addition, white students gain understanding from the richer mix of classmates they meet and learn beside.

It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of issue. The more diverse we are, the more diverse we will become, and I see that progression as entirely a good thing.

Harris A. Berman, M.D., Dean, Tufts University School of Medicine

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