As medical schools across the country struggle to increase their enrollment of racial and ethnic minorities, one of the newest in the nation is already one of the most diverse: The two-year-old CUNY School of Medicine. It’s a distinction matched by the medical school’s unique social mission of improving health care in underserved communities at a time when the need for primary care physicians is rising nationwide.
The CUNY medical school, based at City College, is a seven-year program that combines undergraduate and medical degrees for about 475 students. It was established in 2016 as an outgrowth of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, which took students through their second year of medical education, at which point they transferred to medical schools for the last two years of their degrees. Now the new CUNY School of Medicine (CSOM) recruits top New York City high school students, largely from underrepresented minority groups, for a program that will begin conferring CUNY’s first medical degrees next year. (The school also continues the Sophie Davis school’s training program for physician assistants.)
CUNY’s move to join the ranks of American medical schools comes at a propitious time. An analysis published in December by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that diversity numbers at the nation’s medical schools are rising, but at a pace so slow that it could take decades for the field to begin mirroring the demographics of the country. But CUNY is a rarity: a medical school whose student population today approaches the diversity of the communities it seeks to serve.
A majority of the students in the CUNY School of Medicine – 53 percent – are members of underrepresented minority groups. That’s almost the reverse of the nation’s medical schools as a whole, which remain 59 percent white.
The disparity is most striking in the number of black students, who account for 35 percent of CUNY’s medical students – five times the national percentage, according to new data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The organization last year cited the CUNY School of Medicine as one of the top five medical schools in the country for recruitment of black and African American students, exceeded only by the four historically black medical schools. Another 18 percent of CUNY’s medical students are Hispanic – twice the percentage nationally.
Along with its large representation of black and Hispanic medical students, CUNY has topped the nation in enrolling women in the past two years. All told, 63 percent of CUNY’s medical students are women. And, like the University as a whole, the CUNY medical school is unusually diverse in terms of socioeconomic, cultural and national background. More than 80 percent of its students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz says that CSOM’s emergence as a national leader in medical-school diversity aligns with the social and public-interest missions of other CUNY professional schools, such as the School of Law, and of the university as a whole. “Our medical school is uniquely committed to training physicians and other health care professionals who want to address health disparities and improve care in the kinds of underserved communities that many of them come from,” she said.
Those aspirations are personified by students like Gabrielle Cintron, who began the program when it was still the Sophie Davis school and will finish in 2020 as a member of the School of Medicine’s first graduating class. The daughter of Puerto Rican and Guyanese parents, Cintron said she was drawn to the school’s focus on the socioeconomic factors of health care. “I grew up in a black and Hispanic neighborhood in Queens and I never saw a black or Hispanic pediatrician in my life,” Cintron said. “This program is trying to bring in more people from underrepresented backgrounds like me. They want to fix the disparities in medicine. That message really drew me in.”
“I don’t think you’ll find a medical school anywhere that looks like we do,” added Shahid Dodson, another member of the Class of 2020, who grew up in Brooklyn and experienced the health disparities of poor neighborhoods firsthand. “In the community I’m from, I never had a physician, someone I could ask questions. Now when I see patients in the hospital, they’ll say, ‘You come from where I come from.’ It makes a difference. It gives me purpose.”
Prior to its elevation to a school of medicine, the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education was a five-year program that integrated a three-year bachelor’s degree with the first two years of traditional medical education. Students then transferred to one of six cooperating medical schools for the final two years of clinical training and received their medical degrees from those institutions. But in recent years, the school faced a dwindling supply of these clinical “clerkships” available to its students in New York, threatening the sustainability of the program. In response, the school’s leaders forged a major new partnership with St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx to be the program’s primary clinical home and prepared to pursue accreditation as a school of medicine.
The Sophie Davis school transitioned to the CUNY School of Medicine in the fall of 2016. Now students complete their two years of clinical training in rotations at St. Barnabas, along with Staten Island University Hospital and several clinical practices in the New York area.
CSOM faculty and students say the combination of the new seven-year degree and the school’s diversity and deeply rooted social purpose is attracting some of New York’s most talented and committed future physicians. And current students who entered expecting to eventually transfer and earn their medical degrees from other institutions say they will be proud to be graduates of the CUNY School of Medicine.
Maikel Kamel, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School whose family emigrated to New York when he was a year old, says he was attracted to the CUNY medical school because of the uniqueness of its makeup and mission to bring quality health care to underserved communities. “If you take a look around at your classmates you see every race, every ethnicity,” he says. “I also liked that a lot of courses you take in your first two years as an undergrad specifically address health disparities—courses you don’t see in traditional medical schools.”
City College President Vincent Boudreau says this focus on the socioeconomic determinants of health is a key aspect of what distinguishes CSOM from the city’s established medical schools and the vast majority nationwide. “Even before students start their medical curriculum they are taking courses that get them thinking about vital cultural and social issues in communities of need,” Boudreau said. “This approach allows us to root the school’s medical education in a real sense of mission and purpose.”
In addition to forging new clinical partnerships, the School of Medicine has gradually been building its faculty, including a focus on recruiting minorities to bring the teaching staff more in line with the diversity of its student body. Meanwhile, the school has earned provisional accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the federally recognized accrediting body for U.S. medical schools, and expects to be fully accredited as its first graduates receive their diplomas in the spring of 2020.
At the same time, the school has embarked on a campaign to raise the resources it needs to fulfill its ambitions and meet the stringent requirements of accreditation. The school is operating with roughly the same $11 million budget that supported the Sophie Davis program for many years, and CUNY is seeking an additional $11 million in its budget request for the 2019-20 fiscal year. City College is also assembling a board for the school to help raise private support.
“We talk frequently, and with pride, about CUNY as a driver of social mobility,” observed Boudreau. “At the CUNY School of Medicine, we’re training doctors to directly combat some of the most devastating obstacles to social mobility: negligible primary health care in underserved areas. This is especially important at a time when the number of primary care physicians is declining nationally. The need has never been greater.”