Diversity

Changing the Face of Health Care Providers, One Student at a Time

By Sheena D. Brown, PhD, MSCRDecember 7, 2016

2016 Project Access volunteers visit Edison High School in Minneapolis. Credit: Kim Gilmer

2016 Project Access volunteers visit Edison High School in Minneapolis. Credit: Kim Gilmer

Growing up in rural Texas, none of my health care providers looked like me.

I was usually the only black student in all of my high school classes, and when the time came for me to meet with my counselor, I was advised to pursue a trade. Fortunately, I had an amazing mentor — the only black teacher at my high school — who inspired me to pursue undergraduate and graduate education. He often reminded me that “to whom much is given, much is required.”

Now that I’m a PA educator, I have definitely noticed a lack of underrepresented minority (URM) applicants, matriculants, and alumni, e.g., Blacks/African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians/Alaska Natives. This shortage is partially due to a lack of knowledge about the profession among certain populations. URMs currently constitute more than 30 percent of the US population and are expected to account for more than 40 percent of the population by 2050. Presently, URMs continue to be grossly underrepresented among certified PAs, PA faculty members, and PA matriculants — less than 10 percent of all certified PAs and PA educators are URMs.

Diversifying the PA workforce improves the overall health of the nation by increasing cultural competency and improving access to health care for underserved populations. This crucial work begins with recruiting students from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and teaching them the importance of, as the saying goes, “striving forward, while reaching back.” Building the student-to-faculty pipeline is an essential part of preparing the next generation of PA educators and leaders.

I am fortunate to serve on the PAEA Project Access Committee, whose goal is to encourage middle school, high school, and undergraduate students from URM groups to consider the PA profession as a career. We work year-round to organize, implement, and evaluate various outreach activities aimed at increasing awareness of the PA profession among URMs and underserved communities. During the annual AAPA Conference and PAEA Education Forum, the Project Access Committee recruits conference attendees, practicing PAs, PA educators, and PA students as volunteers to visit urban middle schools, high schools, and colleges around the host city. Volunteers are given the task of introducing URM students to the benefits of becoming a PA and providing health care to diverse, underserved communities.

2016 Project Access volunteers visit Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.
2016 Project Access volunteers visit Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. Credit: Kirsten Thomsen

Project Access at the 2016 Education Forum

During the 2016 PAEA Education Forum, more than 50 PA students, PAs, and PA educators volunteered to share the benefits of pursuing a career in health care with URM students in Minneapolis. Armed with the Project Access toolkit, which includes a PowerPoint presentation, swag bags, and pamphlets, volunteers ventured out to 11 high schools around the city with the goal of inspiring URM students to pursue a career as a PA. Volunteers presented to more than 450 students, discussing topics such as real-life PA experiences, where to find PA resources, how to overcome roadblocks and barriers to becoming a PA, and the importance of having URM health care providers.

I had the pleasure of servings as the volunteer leader for the team that visited Cristo Rey Jesuit High School – Twin Cities, which is part of the nationwide Cristo Rey Network of 32 high schools that provide “a quality, Catholic, college preparatory education to young people who live in urban communities with limited educational options.” Housed in the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center, the school serves more than 400 economically disadvantaged URM students. Our team spent an hour connecting with more than 75 graduating seniors, 90 percent of whom were Latino/Hispanic.

After initial introductions, we began by asking the question “How many of you know what a PA is?” Only four students sheepishly raised their hands — it was clear that most of the audience was unfamiliar with the PA profession. Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon response. But, armed with that knowledge, we were able to focus our efforts on educating the students about the profession and its benefits.

First, we presented the highlights of the “Project Access: PAs Transforming Health Care” presentation, which includes Emory University’s PA Class of 2010 Parody Rap Video, “KNOW!!” This lighthearted introduction to a day in the life of a PA student garnered lots of laughs and captured the attention of the audience. We also showed the students the “Project Access: My PA Path” video (see the video below), which showcases the educational and career paths of URM PA faculty members. During the question and answer period, volunteers took time to share tips on preparing for PA school, insights from their personal experiences, anecdotes on why they chose to become PA educators or PAs, the benefits of loan repayment programs, and how to find financial assistance.


It was a great experience from which both students and volunteers benefited. Collectively, through our personal experiences and stories, we helped make the idea of pursuing a career in health care a real possibility.

Striving Forward

Recruiting students from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and teaching is necessary to address the nation’s changing health care landscape. Over the past three years, Project Access has organized outreach visits to more than 50 urban high schools and colleges, and with the help of more than 150 volunteers, Project Access’ reach has been extended to more than 1,700 URM high school and college students across the nation. Through programs like Project Access, I hope that, eventually, nobody has to start an article with, “none of my health care providers looked like me.”

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Sheena D. Brown, PhD, MSCR

Sheena is a clinical assistant professor and director of the MMSc/MPH Combined Degree Traineeship Program at Mercer University. She also serves on PAEA’s Project Access Committee.