Educational initiatives come and go. Few have stood the test of time as well as the Horizons in Medicine program at Wright State University School of Medicine, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in August. Fewer still have made as big a dent in what continues to be a national problem.
Horizons in Medicine was launched in 1979 as a long-term investment in the education of minority and disadvantaged high school students. The program's ultimate goal was increasing Ohio's supply of minority physicians and other health-care professionals. Once a pioneering initiative, Horizons in Medicine is now a cornerstone of Wright State's community outreach programs with statistics and personal success stories that point to a promising future.
The under-representation of African-Americans and other minority groups among practicing physicians was a national problem in 1979, and it remains so today. In June the Council on Graduate Medical Education, a Congressional advisory committee, warned that minorities are still "critically under-represented" in medicine at a time when health-care disparities between minorities and whites are getting worse. The committee's report called for more community outreach programs like Horizons in Medicine.
Horizons is an example of the "pipeline" strategy to increase the number of minority doctors, according to Jacqueline McMillan, assistant dean for student affairs at Wright State School of Medicine. "We work with students long before they reach college to prepare them in math and science. We're priming the pipeline that leads to a career in medicine."
A six-week summer program, Horizons is designed to give high school juniors a sense of the career possibilities in health care and to show them the kind of serious preparation needed to enter such careers. Students spend mornings in classrooms and laboratories at Wright State, where they are introduced to subjects such as anatomy, biochemistry and physiology. They spend afternoons working in hospitals and community clinics affiliated with Wright State.
"I realized the impact Horizons made on me when I became a freshman in college. The chemistry textbook in college was the same one we used in Horizons in Medicine," recalls Alonzo Patterson, M.D. A member of the first Horizons class in 1979, Patterson is now a pediatrician in Huber Heights. He also works as a mentor and advisor for minority medical students at Wright State.
The afternoon work assignment is a first job for many of Horizons students. Working in clinical environments provides opportunities to begin to build the "people" skills needed to be a doctor, according to Dr. Angela Long-Prentice.
Now a family physician in Dayton, she was part of the 1980 Horizons class. "That was the first time I ever worked in a hospital. My job was working in the cafeteria. I almost quit. I wondered what picking up trays for the patients had to do with medicine," she remembers. "Then I realized that every time you walk into a room you could make a patient smile. I started building patient relationship skills that summer, and I bring those same skills to patients today."
Since 1979, 33 Horizons alumni like Patterson and Long-Prentice have become M.D.'s. Another 17 Horizons students are now enrolled in medical school. A total of 368 high school students have completed Horizons in Medicine; 336 (94 percent of eligible students) have entered college, and 215 (79 percent of eligible students) have graduated from college.