Addressing health disparities

Michigan News

When Aiisya Williamson was growing up she saw only two options for a career in health care: become a doctor or a nurse.

She enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, with an eye toward a future as a physician, but still was not sure about the path she had chosen.

Then she heard about the Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) offered in the U-M School of Public Health. And the rest, as they say, is history for the current executive director of Mercy Primary Care Center in Detroit. The organization she leads provides medical and other health related support services to those without insurance who are not qualified for Medicaid or Medicare.

“The summer program came at a time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to have an impact in health care but I wanted to better define it,” said Williamson, who went on to earn a master’s in health management and policy from U-M, and now serves as a preceptor, mentoring student interns enrolled in the eight-week program. “Because the Summer Enrichment Program meant so much to me, and really in a lot of ways fundamentally changed my life, I love the fact that I’m able to give back to it now.”

Williamson’s story is just one of many that are highlighted in new research on the impact of the SEP on the career paths of program alumni, published in the September/October issue of Public Health Reports.

The Summer Enrichment Program began in 1986 to encourage students from underrepresented populations to consider careers in health care. The goal was to address health inequalities and improve population health by increasing the diversity of the nation’s health care workforce.

Following the 2006 passage of Michigan’s Proposal 2, which banned race-based and affirmative action programs, the program was expanded to include all students who are committed to addressing health disparities, Program Director Richard Lichtenstein said.

On the occasion of the program’s 25th anniversary in 2011, Lichtenstein, S J Axelrod Collegiate Professor of Health Management and Policy, conducted an alumni survey to find out how the SEP had impacted participants.

Among his findings:

  • More than 97 percent of the respondents said they had applied to graduate school in health or planned to do so, or they were enrolled in or had finished an advanced degree in the field.
  • Nearly 70 percent of those receiving degrees got them in public health, with 54 percent enrolling in health management programs.
  • Of alumni who had completed graduate training, more than 3/4 worked full-time in the health field, 2/3 were employed in management or policy areas, and 1/4 were clinical providers (or held both administrative and clinical positions).

A result that specifically addressed the success of the program is that 57 percent said they had planned to go on to graduate school prior to the program. After participation that number swelled to 85 percent.

Perhaps even more satisfying to Lichtenstein were the open-ended comments from program alumni.

“The best thing is to read comments from the students saying that this program completely changed their careers and completely changed their lives,” he said. “Person after person said they didn’t know what this field was, they wanted to do something for their communities, they thought they would be a doctor… but then they found that going into this field really enables them to work on community problems in the health area.”

Included in that list of successful alumni is Denise Brooks Williams, president and CEO of Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.

Much like Williamson’s story, Brooks-Williams enrolled for her undergraduate degree at U-M with thoughts about becoming either a pediatrician or psychologist. But as time went on she wasn’t convinced becoming a clinician was the direction to go. The undergraduate who double majored in psychology and Afro and African American Studies heard about the SEP while working part-time in SPH epidemiology.

“I knew I didn’t want a career in epid (epidemiology) but I knew I wanted to make a difference and to help people, and I really wanted to be in a hospital.”

At the urging of her epidemiology supervising faculty member, Brooks-Williams had a conversation with Lichtenstein, who talked with her about his vision for the then year-old program to impact health disparities by encouraging persons of color to pursue health care management and policy careers.

“You need people at the table with all backgrounds to talk about health care delivery,” Brooks-Williams said. “He talked very openly with me, explaining that there were not a lot of African Americans or even females in health care management.”

Her intern placement during the program was ideal. At U-M Hospital she worked with Larry Warren, who at that time as associate hospital director was one of the few African Americans in top hospital leadership in the country, she said.  Warren rose through the ranks in his 26 years at UMHHS, retiring as director and CEO in 2005.

Students enrolled in SEP 2013 have more awareness of careers in public health, Lichtenstein noted, but the need for the program is greater than ever, with the growth of minority populations and an ever-widening gap in health disparities.

“The idea is that we selected people who are really interested in eliminating these health inequalities, and when they’re in positions of power they might have a chance to change things,” Lichtenstein said.

A 2013 participant in the program who hopes to do just that is McKinley Kelcy from Charlotte, North Carolina, an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It’s really important for me to give back, and to figure out ways to use my career to really help people find equal access to health care, quality health care, and being able to live healthy lives.” Kelcy said.

Andrew Widener, Arizona State University undergraduate from south Texas agreed: “I think that as a society we have made the moral choice to help others in need, and it’s one of the greatest things we can do.”

2013 SEP participant Stasha Dennard, a University of Washington student from Seattle, liked the SEP mission of encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to help solve disparities.

“So we are able to associate with others and be like, ‘we look like you, we understand what you’re coming from, so we can help you as well. The healthcare system is not something you need to be afraid of. Health is just as important and just as much your right as it is to any number of populations,’ ” Dennard said.


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