Building a more diverse healthcare workforce

Building a more diverse healthcare workforce

February 13, 2024

| by
Jonathan B. Waller

Iris M. Reyes, MD
Iris Reyes, MD

Iris Reyes, MD, helps to open doors for new generations of physicians from populations historically underrepresented in medicine (URiM) to reach successful and impactful careers in medicine.

Reyes, a professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), founded the Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)-led Alliance of Minority Physicians (AMP) in 2012 to support such efforts. Since then, AMP mentors and faculty have guided URiM students and trainees at Penn and CHOP, driving a three-fold increase in the number of minority physicians training in Penn or CHOP residency or internship programs. 

Now, Reyes is working with diversity leaders from the Consortium of DEI Health Educators (CDHE)—representing each of the six major medical schools in the Philadelphia area—to expand AMP and serve URiM students and professionals across the region.

“In expanding, AMP is positioned to influence the futures of URiM professionals. And at the end of the day, the patients and communities we serve are what center and drive this work,” added George Dalembert, MD, MSHP, an assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine  and associate director of CHOP’s Center for Health Equity.

In 2023, a grant from the Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Foundation’s Institute for Health Equity accelerated this growth, providing funding for programming specifically focused on recruitment and retention. 

AMP has leveraged those partnerships to launch a new effort, the Pathways to Excellence in Medicine (PEM) initiative, offering students hands-on training, networking opportunities, expert perspectives, career guidance, and more. 

“The IBX Foundation was really interested in creating a pathway for URiM students and trainees to set down roots and stay in the Philadelphia area,” said Reyes. “As we’ve continued this growth, we’ve opted to start from the ground up, targeting the greenest of the green: first year medical students.”

Opening doors to mentorship 

At Med Immersion Day, Claudia Gambrah-Lyles, MD (far right) facilitates medical simulations, assessing a student interpreting changes in vital signs on the mannequin of a 5-year-old trauma patient.
At AMP’s first Med Immersion Day, Claudia Gambrah-Lyles, MD (far right) facilitated
medical simulations in heart and respiration monitoring for pediatric patients. Students did
assessments on the mannequin of a 5-year-old trauma patient, interpreting changes in vital
signs and responding accordingly.

A member of the PEM mentorship planning committee, third-year PSOM student Nasser Douge noted how intimidating it can be to reach out to established experts. 

“For a student, having a network of mentors and professional contacts allows for unique perspectives from professionals at every stage in their career,” said Douge. “We work to break barriers by hosting events where students, advisors, and mentors can mingle in more open and relaxed environments.”

In December, PEM hosted the first Philadelphia-wide student mentorship day, where 19 new mentees from six medical programs across Philadelphia were matched with a medical trainee and a faculty mentor from either Penn or CHOP.

Additional students—both current members of AMP and Philadelphia-area URiM students interested in mentorship—joined the event’s afternoon sessions for networking and career guidance.

According to Douge, AMP’s inclusion of each of the area’s medical schools presented a particular benefit, where he and fellow students could encounter an expanded diversity of thought, training, and experience. 

Giving guidance along the path toward futures in medicine

Claudia Gambrah-Lyles, MD, has been involved with AMP since medical school at PSOM. After graduating in 2019, Gambrah-Lyles completed her residency in Pediatric Medicine at CHOP and is currently completing a Child Neurology dual residency at CHOP and Penn. 

“The opportunity to meet and engage with AMP faculty and trainees across Penn and CHOP is one of the reasons why I wanted to go to PSOM,” said Gambrah-Lyles. “As a medical student, I was eager to contribute to AMP’s mission by supporting each new cohort of students along their path.”

Since her start with AMP, she has worked with AMP to open opportunities for exposure, training, guidance, and support for URiM students. Gambrah-Lyles now serves on AMP’s Advisory and Planning Committee.

Gambrah-Lyles is proud of her work in co-facilitating events like the PEM’s first Med Immersion Day for the entire Philadelphia medical school community. 

At this event, more than 50 first through fourth-year medical students rotated through state-of-the-art training simulations, roundtable and panel discussions, and other hands-on activities specifically tailored to each year of undergraduate medical training.

In a training session focused on clinical emergencies, Gambrah-Lyles facilitated a module involving heart and respiration monitoring for pediatric patients, using a medical mannequin to take students through various clinical scenarios and share guidance on interpreting and responding to changes in vital signs.

“It was so interesting to see students apply what they’ve learned to scenarios they will actually encounter as practicing physicians,” said Gambrah-Lyles. “A few times, I had students who were nervous or unsure of what to do next. But I was able to coach them through it in a safe space where they felt comfortable asking for help.”

She remembers what it was like to be where they are, understanding that their day-to-day medical school environment might not make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions. “It can be hard to show vulnerability or apprehension in an environment where no one else looks like you,” Gambrah-Lyes said.

 “I had a lot of students come up to me afterwards saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about child neurology, but have never met someone like you who’s doing it. Can I talk to you more about it later?’” she added.

Elevating medical excellence across a lifetime of professional development

During medical school and residency at Boston Children’s Hospital, Cody-Aaron Gathers, MD, developed an appreciation for the intersections of clinical care and public health policy. 

“There’s plenty of data that points to a link between inequity in the health care workforce and inequity in health outcomes for patients. And so, my interest in better serving critically ill children aligns closely with an interest in addressing disparities in the medical workplace,” said Gathers.

He’s currently completing a master’s degree in health policy at Penn and a Pediatric Critical Care Fellowship at CHOP. His work with AMP began immediately after coming to Philadelphia, and he was particularly drawn to its focus on supporting continuing professional development. 

With AMP’s expansion, the Professional Development Committee is building out a more robust program for its series of in-person seminars, attracting nationally recognized speakers and welcoming URiM trainees from across the Delaware Valley. Seminars have explored a wide range of topics, from personal financial planning to microaggressions in the workplace.

“Through these professional development events, we’ve seen this unique interplay between these global topics and what it means for us all as underrepresented professionals who’ve had to navigate our academic and clinical careers in a different way than a lot of our white counterparts do,” said Gathers. 

Expanding the circle through new initiatives and strengthened relationships

True to the AMP mission, opening doors to a newer, diverse generation of physicians requires planning, partnerships, and persistence. These recent and ongoing areas of growth more than a decade after AMP’s founding reflect Reyes’s original goal in developing a compassionate workforce that reflects Philadelphia’s diverse communities and delivers the best care possible.

The start of 2023 saw the launch of programming targeting first-year medical students, and the year closed with the launch of AMP’s IBX Foundation House Staff Scholars and IBX Foundation Faculty Mentors as an additional facet of its PEM initiative. In 2024, these scholars and mentors are spearheading the continued development of programming specifically targeted toward first-year medical students. The Penn Visiting Clerkship Program, where fourth-year URiM students across the region can take part in clinical rotations at CHOP, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Pennsylvania Hospital, and HUP in more than 20 subspecialties, will also continue this year. 

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