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Charles R. Drew University Is Training the Next Generation of Physicians of Color

Charles R. Drew University is challenging entrenched inequities in health care by recruiting, educating and empowering underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in health. One student at a time, CDU is building the next generation of diverse health care workers. 

Consistently ranked as one of the most diverse universities in the country, CDU, a grantee in our Economic Security and Dignity portfolio, was born in response to the Watts uprising in South Los Angeles in 1965. It has always had a social justice mission. Today, more than 85% of the students report that, upon graduation, they intend to practice and provide care in underserved communities. And in July 2021, the state of California granted $50 million to CDU to support its work in increasing diversity in California's healthcare industry. 

We spoke with Dr. David M. Carlisle, president and chief executive of Charles R. Drew University. Our conversation with Dr. Carlisle has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Dr. David M. Carlisle, headshot
Our students want to get their degrees so they can go back and improve the health of the communities that they grew up in. Dr. David M. Carlisle

Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science leads the field when it comes to diversity in health care. What is the mission of your university?

Dr. Carlisle: CDU was founded in the latter part of the 20th century with a specific goal in mind. And that was to respond to some of the higher education needs that were identified because of the 1965 Watts Uprising, specifically in the area of health and health professions education. Those were felt to be some of the important contributing factors in the McCone Commission Report on the civil unrest that occurred in the Watts, Compton and Willowbrook part of South Los Angeles in 1965. So we're one of the few universities that was created with a specific social justice agenda in mind. And we've been true to that mission ever since.

Our mission is to take young people from under-resourced communities, especially young people from populations that are underrepresented in the health professions, and to turn them into health professionals who at the midpoint of their careers are making significant contributions to the communities that they serve, which are often the communities that they came from.

And we've been successful. We've delivered on that mission for 54 years since our incorporation in 1966. And that's why the Brookings Institute named us the number three most value-added university in the United States back in 2015. And that's because we were taking students from very challenged economic backgrounds and turning them into highly contributing professionals by the midpoint of their careers.

Why is having a diverse health care workforce so important?

Dr. Carlisle: Diversity brings compassion to the table. Study after study has shown that when you have concordance between the provider and the patient, healthcare outcomes improve. A recent study looked at Black infants who were born with better outcomes when their pediatricians were African-American. There is a study from UCLA, from a couple of decades ago, that looked at HIV patients and saw better quality measures if the patient and the physician had the same ethnic background.

I'll tell a story about one of my patients when I was at UCLA. This is a gentleman who was a tenured department chair. About as powerful a person as you can get at a university. He could have chosen anybody to be his primary care physician. But he chose me knowing well that I was a research faculty member trying to make tenure—publish or perish. I wasn't going to get promoted by teaching. I wasn't going to get promoted because of my patient care capabilities. I was only going to get promoted because of my ability to do research. He knew that, as a research faculty member, I wasn't going to come to the emergency room and see him. I wasn't going to come to the clinic on an off day to see him. I just wasn't going to be there for him like other physicians would have.

Nevertheless, he chose me. He said, “Dave, do you ever wonder why I picked you to be my doctor? I chose you because you're African-American and I'm African-American. And when it comes to maybe making a crucial decision about me when I'm unconscious in an ICU bed or emergency room, I know that I can trust you to make any decision with my best interest at heart." 

This sentiment is also reflected in a book from the Harlem Renaissance, by Rudolph Fisher, called “The Walls of Jericho." And this is in 1926. The main character in the book is waiting in a clinic to be seen. A white doctor calls out and says, "Okay, come on in." And the character says, "No, I'll wait for the black doctor to see me."

Dr. Carlisle explains that patients want doctors who look like them. [Read transcripts for all the audio clips here.]

After graduation, most of your students practice in underserved areas and in community health centers. What motivates them to make these professional choices and to give back in this way?

Dr. Carlisle: Two things about our students are unique. Number one, our students come from the communities that they want to return to serve. We have such a high percentage of students from the South Los Angeles area that it's just gratifying to watch them all become health care professionals.

I recharge my batteries by walking around and talking to students. And one of my favorite questions to ask them is, “Where did you come from?” And often they'll look at me, maybe a little bit slyly, and they'll say, "Dr. Carlisle, I came from Compton. I grew up in Watts. I grew up right around the corner on 120th and Central Avenue. I'm a graduate of the King Drew Magnet High School." This high school is adjacent to our campus.

Number two, many of our students are the first members of their family, not just to get a health professions degree, but to go to college. So, you will hardly ever find a CDU medical student who will say that my mother or my grandfather told me I should not become a doctor because medicine has gotten so horrible since the time that they were doctors. That is not the story that you hear from our students. Our students want to get their degrees so they can go back and improve the health of the communities that they grew up in.

How many of your students come from underrepresented communities?

Dr. Carlisle: We are a historically Black graduate institution designated by the federal government. But if we were not designated as historically Black, we could be designated as a Latino serving. If we weren't designated as Latino serving, we could be designated as Asian-Pacific Islander serving. That's why our diversity numbers are so high.

Historically we’ve been 30 percent African-American, roughly 30 percent Latino, roughly 20 percent Asian-Pacific Islander. And we have other communities represented as well. We're all about diversity and we're certainly recognized for that. But we also have students from very challenged economic backgrounds. If you look at Pell Grants nationally, about 30 percent of undergraduates are eligible for these programs. About 67 percent of our undergraduate students receive Pell Grants. Across all California universities, around 15 percent of undergraduates receive Cal Grants, but 30 percent of our undergraduates receive Cal Grants.

But again, according to the Brookings Institute, we propel those students into highly productive careers by virtue of a CDU degree. We’re 48th in California in terms of the graduate earning power among our graduates.

Could you share with us a student success story?

Dr. Carlisle: I have one student in mind. Her name is Adrienne Martinez and she's a graduate of our Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing with a master's degree. She’s a product of Highland Park, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Northeast LA and her father died because of complications of his diabetes. She started working as a Licensed Vocational Nurse and was encouraged by her colleagues to become a Registered Nurse. She came to us after getting an undergraduate degree and she enrolled into our entry-level master's degree program. She finished that program and went on to get a Ph.D. from UCLA in the school of nursing. In her current research, she focuses on diabetes health disparities among Latinx older adults, and honors her dad's memory by using her nursing training and the Clinical Nurse Leadership degree she got at CDU to improve chronic illness health equity in her community.

Adrienne is just a wonderful example of exactly the type of student from an under-resourced background that we've helped turn into a fantastically productive healthcare professional, in addition to everything else Adrianne does. She's a professional artist, a muralist. And she has murals throughout Los Angeles, revealing her connectedness with the L.A. community.

And she's just one example. I mean, I could go on and on, because there are so many examples of students who've done such wonderful things. The same goes for our faculty members. One of our faculty members was telling me about her time growing up as a young girl in central Los Angeles. She and her mother were walking down the sidewalk. A young guy came up to them, attempted to rob her mother. When her mother said, "I've got no money,” he shot her in the leg. And she’s about 10 years old at the time. And she's looking at her mother lying on the sidewalk saying, "Mom, are you going to die?" I mention this because this is not an infrequent occurrence in urban Los Angeles. But that young 10-year-old has gone on to become a doctor, has gone on to become a member of our faculty.

That’s an inspiring story. Would you like to share another?

Dr. Carlisle: Rasheed Ivey is about to graduate from our medical education program and go on to his residency training program. Straight out of Compton. Born and raised. With everything that brings with it. But he's now about to become a doctor. He came to us at a very young age, in one of our Pipeline Programs, which the California Wellness Foundation has supported. We have a number of students who have gone through the pipeline programs and now have graduate degrees and are health care professionals.

Your Pipeline Program is incredible, because it introduces pre-K to 12th grade students to careers in medicine, science, research and health.

Dr. Carlisle: That's why our junior white coat ceremony is so gratifying. So in this program, we take students as young as age four and teach them about biology and science. Upon graduation, they all participate in the junior white coat ceremony. And again, you have young men and women as young as age four, all the way through high school, and they'll get up on stage and they'll start reciting scientific and anatomic facts. And it's always very impressive. But the most important thing is when we get into the white coat and announce their name, we say, "Congratulations, Dr. Martinez, congratulations, Dr. Johnson." And then you see the light going off in their eyes and they think, "Maybe I can be a doctor."

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about our health care system, what would it be? What would you change about our health care education?

Dr. Carlisle: That's a really, really big question. I would want to have true equity in health care. I'd want to take the absence of equity off the table so that no one in this country or the world is penalized in terms of actualizing their potential because of poor health and absence of health care. I'd want to make sure that a 16-year-old from Bell Gardens has the same right to getting a heart transplant as a 16-year-old living in Brentwood. So that your zip code does not matter in terms of health and health outcomes.

If I could do anything for American health care, I would just take that issue off the table so we can focus on more important things like personal development, education, economic empowerment. Right now, the downside of our health care system is pulling us down. And this is why the United States ranks so poorly on international comparisons of health outcomes.

In terms of health care education, I would want to make sure that everybody who wants to become a health care professional has equal access to that pathway because when people are given equal access, they perform and achieve. And right now we don't have enough of that access. And this is exactly why CDU exists.

You get over almost 4,000 applications for 28 slots in your medical education program. We just wish you could enroll a lot more students.

Dr. Carlisle: We're working on that. We’re growing and expanding.

CDU will double their enrollment over the next five years. Recently CDU received a $7.7 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies

It sound like what also distinguishes CDU is the attention and care that you give to your students.

Dr. Carlisle: If I may, I’ll share another story with you. At an event, one of our nursing students is about to give a presentation. I have no idea what she's going to say. I'm a little bit nervous, but I know that she's really good. And I know that whatever she says will be great, but I don't know what she's going to say. And so she gets up and she says, "You all need to understand why I came to CDU. I came here after graduating from a CSU, California State University, where I was one of 30 some thousand students on campus. I was taking science classes with hundreds of other students. I could have been walking across the middle of campus and the Starship Enterprise could have beamed me up and nobody would have ever known that I was missing. I was just a number. Nobody cared about me."

“I come to CDU. And not only does my Dean know me by name, and I know my Dean, the President knows me by name, and I know the President. In fact, they know me so well that if I'm having a bad day, they can look at my face and say, "Are you having a bad day? What's going on." And she said, "I would never experience that at a CSU, but I experienced it on a daily basis that Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.”

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