OAKLAND -- Fewer than one in five African-American students who enroll in U.S. medical schools graduate four years later. Kathryn Malone, a doctor who practices family medicine at Sutter East Bay Physicians Medical Group and lives in the Oakland hills, wants to change that number.
Malone is one of the startup board members of Physicians Medical Forum, a nonprofit leadership and mentoring group that aims to increase the number of African-American physicians, residents and medical students in Northern California. The group hosts an intensive, daylong mentoring conference called "Doctors on Board" to provide African-American future medical students with a glimpse into what practicing medicine is like through workshops and mock diagnosis sessions. This year's event, in which Malone will teach suturing and knot-tying, will be held Saturday at Oakland Marriott City Center.
"We really felt that African Americans were really falling through the cracks in school," Malone said. "So we try to help all the African-American medical students in the area going to Davis, Stanford, UCSF and other medical schools."
As one of few African Americans in medical school, Malone said the experience was often a lonesome one. She said that the more minorities who enroll in and graduate from medical school to become physicians, the better society will be. Multiple reports suggest that there will be a major shortage of physicians in general by 2025, and Malone not only wants to see more people in medical school but more African Americans, too.
"It's important to have people who look like our population. White doctors take very good care of ... black patients, but sometimes it's great when people have the opportunity to say, 'Oh my God, it's great to see someone who looks like me in the exam room,' " she said.
Physicians Medical Forum began in 2002 with a grant from Summit Medical Center in Oakland to, over a span of 10 years, encourage recruitment of new doctors in the area, particularly African Americans, and to retain them, said forum Executive Director Stalfana Bello.
"We already have a shortage in the entire country of physicians, so it's very competitive out there," Bello said. "We need to be competitive to attract doctors and retain them."
One of the biggest events sponsored by Physicians Medical Forum is this weekend's "Doctors on Board" program. About 175 minority high school juniors and seniors, pre-med students and post-baccalaureate students will attend the event to learn from about 50 doctors what it takes to be a medical student and work in the profession. Along with mock diagnosis clinics, workshops and panel discussions, the 12-hour event also features "speed mentoring," a process like speed dating in which four or five students meet with a doctor for five minutes to ask questions and then move on to other doctors after the five minutes are up. At the end of the day, there is a workshop for parents and family that explains to them what it takes to have children in medical school.
"We want to get these students early enough so we can provide them with an incredible, amazing experience where they say, 'Maybe I do want to be a physician,' " Bello said.
Taisha Ford, of Alameda, a 27-year-old UC Berkeley biology grad who is applying for medical school, took part in the free event last year and said it was a "game-changer."
"I have been involved in other pre-med conferences and workshops, but this was, in particular, a great opportunity to meet physicians and particularly physicians that look like me," she said. "I even found some shadowing opportunities with some of the physicians there. And the more exposure I get, the more motivated I get."
Albert Brooks, OB-GYN and chief of medical services at Washington Hospital in Fremont who lives near Skyline High School, said he participates as a mentor in the forum because he wants to be a part of developing more physicians to create better care. African-American doctors often work in low-income and urban communities and build relationships with minority patients that improve their care, he said.
"You can actually show that care gets improved when the patient and physician are able to communicate and identify with each other," he said.
"Doctors on Board" is a free program, and Physicians Medical Forum recruits students to the program through school administrators. Students receive a white coat, stethoscope and a doctor's bag full of CDs, DVDs and printed material to help them decide if this is the career path for them.