EDI in Action: Nashville PA Program ‘Walks the Walk’

This month, I had the privilege to speak with Sheena D. Brown, PhD, MSCR, assessment director, and Carl A. Frizell, DMSc, MSPAS, PA-C, academic education director, who are both from the Department of Physician Assistant Sciences at Meharry Medical College, a historically black college or university (HBCU), in Nashville. Meharry’s PA program has recently accepted a cohort comprised of 100 percent underrepresented in medicine (URiM) students. Brown and Frizell told me how they’ve achieved this feat by living true to their mission.  

The college clearly states on their website that “the mission of the Meharry Medical College Physician Assistant Sciences Program is to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in medicine (URiM) into the PA profession.”

They subscribe to AAMC’s definition of URiM, which includes those racial and ethnic populations that are underrepresented in the medical profession relative to their numbers in the general population.

Dr. Brown and Dr. Frizell reflected on their experiences at other PA programs, where they heard their colleagues posit that such populations are inherently “risky.” At Meharry, there is no room for inaccurate stereotypes, and instead, the focus is on removing barriers that have historically prevented minoritized applicants from acceptance. This includes the removal of a minimum GPA or GRE requirement and an emphasis on putting in the time and effort to understand how each application is representative of a whole person.

There is a firmly held belief, backed by evidence, that numbers will not determine how a person will function as a provider. Instead, preference is given to applicants who are first-generation college students, Meharry legacies, HBCU graduates, military veterans, Pell Grant recipients, and applicants who have community service experience.  

Once accepted, students at Meharry’s PA Program are introduced to a curriculum that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations about healthcare inequities. Through understanding research, evidence-based practices, and the notion that all health is health, students gain a comprehensive education that equips them to become providers who will have an impact on the populations they serve.

One example is lessons on using patient’s preferred pronouns and not being limited to outdated binary labels. This includes using terms such as “people with penises” and “people with vaginas” to ensure inclusivity at every turn.

For the student’s group capstone project, there is a requirement that their topic must be a disease or health issue that affects underserved populations more than the general population. All of these considerations prepare students to better understand the realities of their future patients and the world where we all live.  

Students at Meharry don’t stop there. This year, students engaged in a day of service at a local elementary school where they raised money and collected supplies for children’s back-to-school supplies. This event included activities for the kids, including an interactive dissection of an animal’s heart and exercises that were geared towards teaching self-awareness of their bodies.  

Dr. Brown and Dr. Frizell recounted their careers in PA education and the unfortunate experiences to which many can relate. They both spoke of how they originally ended up working in PA programs that had lots of nice words on their websites about the importance of diversity and inclusion, only to find a grim reality where not much action was being taken. Weary of hypocritical philosophies that stood in direct contrast with their core values, Dr. Brown and Dr. Frizell were pleasantly surprised by Meharry, a program that is talking the talk but also walking the walk.

Dr. Frizell remarked on how he has been valued and shown respect for the work that he has done while being allowed to grow and learn along the way.

Dr. Brown stressed the importance of recognition from leadership and administration and how these actions motivate her to continue to work hard for what she believes.

They also both mentioned how actions the school is taking, such as offering training led by experts for staff and students on how to create safe spaces for queer communities, further their belief that they have found a place that aligns with who they are.