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UTHSC, Bluff City Medical Society Partner to Mentor Students, Residents in College of Medicine

Medical student Okeoghene Ogaga credits the joint College of Medicine/Bluff City Medical Society mentoring program, Project STAR, with giving him a support system that is helping him navigate the demands of medical school.

Fourth-year medical student Okeoghene Ogaga is excited to be participating for the second year in Project STAR (Student Achievement and Retention), one of two mentoring programs established through a collaboration between the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Bluff City Medical Society.

Project STAR, for medical students, and Project REZ (Resident Empowerment Zone), for postgraduate medical trainees, are designed to improve the academic environment for medical students and postgraduate trainees traditionally underrepresented in medicine. Now in their second year, the programs also aim to aid in the recruitment and retention by the College of Medicine of underrepresented medical students, residents, and fellows, and ultimately to increase the diversity in the ranks of the physician workforce. 

Ogaga, 29, who will graduate in December, is grateful for his mentor, Lawrence Madlock, MD. “Between my mentor, as well as the leadership of the Bluff City Medical Society, they have given me a good base of individuals I can talk to on a variety of things,” he said. “They have given me a good support system of how to navigate certain things that come up, not just academics, but everyday life, too.”

Ogaga, the 2022-23 president of the Black Student Association, said this support is especially significant coming from mentors who have successfully navigated the same journey he is traveling.

The programs bring students and residents together with mentors from the Bluff City Medical Society to network and receive guidance. In addition to one-on-one mentoring, the programs cover key principles uniquely suited to underrepresented students in the medical field to enhance their learning, teach them coping mechanisms, and address topics beyond traditional education in medicine. These topics include dealing with racism and bias in health care, financial literacy, time management, professional development, and maintaining mental health and wellness.

“It’s really important that we continue to encourage young physicians, our young students who have a desire to become physicians, and that we support them throughout the journey and help them to become successful physicians.”

LaTonya B. Washington, MD, MBA, the immediate past president of the Bluff City Medical Society

“We understand the situations that students of color and students who are traditionally underrepresented in medicine face, and as physicians of color, we have the responsibility to provide support to them throughout their years of education, training, and early career,” said Dr. Washington, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at UTHSC and an organizer of the programs.

For their initial year, the programs drew 46 mentees (24 students and 22 postgraduate trainees) from the college. The Bluff City Medical Society mentors, many of them faculty members of the college, numbered 42.

College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, second from left, joins leaders of the mentoring programs during a welcome event.

“We are requesting a one-year commitment for everyone who is participating in this program, but we do understand that mentorship is a relationship,” Dr. Washington said. “Ideally, the students or residents and their mentors would maintain their relationship longitudinally.” A UTHSC College of Medicine graduate, Class of 2000, Dr. Washington maintains relationships with her mentor from medical school and residency, as well as with her mentee, a fourth-year obstetrics and gynecology resident. 

Project STAR and Project REZ are funded in part by Diversity and Inclusion Mini-Grants from the Office of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity at UTHSC. These grants are awarded annually to members of the UTHSC community to fund projects to create opportunities to enhance inclusion, equity, and diversity, and to enrich health care professionals in these areas. Funding support has also come from the office of former Executive Vice Chancellor and COO Ken Brown.

“As physicians with a deep commitment to social justice and health advocacy, we are acutely aware of the need for improved medical outcomes. We know this is best accomplished by enhancing diversity and equity within our health care system, most notably via an increase in the number of underrepresented minority physicians in medicine,” the principals wrote in applying for the initial grants. “We hope this mentorship not only increases the number of students and postgraduate trainees at UTHSC, but promotes their retention within their respective academic programs, ultimately contributing to a workforce of underrepresented physicians committed to serving all the citizens of Tennessee.”

Claudette Shephard, MD, the associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion for the College of Medicine, is the administrator for the partnership between UTHSC and the Bluff City Medical Society. Dr. Shephard is also an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

“As we seek to enhance the diversity in the college at all levels, it is important to improve the sense of belonging, which is so important to overall success, especially among our students and trainees who are underrepresented in medicine,” Dr. Shephard said. “As the local chapter of the National Medical Association, the Bluff City Medical Society has been supportive of our students, residents, and fellows of color for over 25 years. This program was developed by its leadership, who are faculty in the College of Medicine, to address these needs to more formally improve the quality of the mentorship, provide more opportunities for networking, and expand the reach of participants. It will undoubtedly support our recruitment and retention efforts of students, trainees, and faculty.”

Dr. Washington is a co-chair of Project STAR, the program for medical students, along with Cyrilyn Walters, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of Medicine-General Medicine at UTHSC and medical director for ambulatory services at Regional One Health.

Co-chairs of Project REZ for residents and fellows are Christopher Jackson, MD, FSSCI, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine and the Center for Health Systems Improvement at UTHSC, and Crystal Pourciau, MD, MPH, FAAD, an assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology in the College of Medicine and an attending physician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. 

 “Mentorship is something that we’ve done in the Bluff City Medical Society for many years,” Dr. Washington said. “By formalizing this program, we’ll be able to collect data over time, so we can really show the success of this program. We would measure success as improved retention of medical students, residents, and fellows participating in the program and increased feelings of belonging in their learning environments and in medical settings.”

The goal is to increase the number of underrepresented in medicine students by 20% per year, maintain at least 75% retention of underrepresented medical students in all years, and maintain at least 90% retention of underrepresented postgraduate trainees in all years in all specialties. 

Additional goals for the second year, include participation in a community service project each semester to impact the Memphis community, as well as to continue to support the college’s initiatives to have the medical school and postgraduate training reflect the diversity of the community.

Gatherings on campus are an important part of the joint mentoring programs in the College of Medicine.

 “Relationships were developed that will continue beyond the terms of these programs,” Dr. Shephard said. “Overall, the initial year was a great success, and kudos go to the program leadership, because they drove it and they put a lot of personal hours into making it happen.”