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More Black students are headed to medical school, but finances are still a major issue


Black students are entering medical schools across the country in record numbers. Kirk Carapezza from member station GBH in Boston reports that Tufts University has nearly tripled the number of first-year students who are Black.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Growing up in northern New Jersey, Sabrina Lima says her mom, a nurse, inspired her to pursue a career as a physician.

SABRINA LIMA: I've been on medical missionary trips with her. So seeing her in medicine, she's just like - she's just an amazing woman. I just love how she serves others, and I want to serve people in a similar way.

CARAPEZZA: The daughter of Haitian immigrants says both of her parents encouraged her to apply to medical school.

LIMA: For Haitian kids, either you're a doctor, lawyer, or you're an engineer. So when I said I want to be a doctor, like, they're not going to be like, no, why would you want to do - like, they're like, yeah, my kid wants what I want for them. But they never pushed it.

CARAPEZZA: Last year, she was accepted into Tufts' medical school, where, last fall, the number of new students who identify as Black or African American jumped from nine the year before to 26. Across the country, medical schools say the number of first-year Black students in the U.S. is way up - 21%, an unprecedented spike in the past year.

NORMA POLL-HUNTER: We have never seen such a increase within a short amount of time.

CARAPEZZA: Norma Poll-Hunter says diversity in medicine matters to patients. She leads workforce diversity efforts at the Association of American Medical Colleges, and she points to research that shows, across all races, patients are more likely to report satisfaction with their care when their doctors look like them. But only 5% of the country's doctors are Black.

POLL-HUNTER: When Black physicians, male physicians are working with Black male patients, we see better outcomes in preventative care, cardiac care. We've also seen that in terms of infant mortality as well.

CARAPEZZA: To address health disparities afflicting Black people, Hunter says more medical schools are adjusting their admissions procedures, looking beyond test scores and waiving application fees, allowing more students to interview remotely and considering race when deciding which students to admit.

JOYCE SACKEY: Medical schools are like the Titanic. It's very difficult to move policies and processes, to be honest.

CARAPEZZA: Joyce Sackey is dean for multicultural affairs and global health at Tufts. She says the ongoing racial reckoning has served as inspiration for admissions officers to redouble their diversity efforts.

SACKEY: We are a medical school that has declared that we want to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution. This stand may have also signaled to applicants whom we accepted that maybe this is a place that they could make home.

CARAPEZZA: But finances are still a major issue for underrepresented students in medical school. Graduates finish with a huge amount of debt - on average, more than $240,000.

CEDRIC BRIGHT: We perpetuate that issue because we give scholarships for merit and not scholarships for need.

CARAPEZZA: Dr. Cedric Bright is dean of admissions at East Carolina University's medical school. He says staggering debt loads discourage many would-be doctors from even applying.

BRIGHT: We need to empower communities to want to raise money to say, we will pay for a student that comes from this community, and hopefully when they finish, they'll come back to our community and practice.

CARAPEZZA: That's what Sabrina Lima plans to do after she graduates from Tufts.

LIMA: I definitely want to open up clinics. I want to work in low-income areas.

CARAPEZZA: She sees herself serving first-generation immigrant families near her New Jersey hometown.

LIMA: A lot of my early health experiences have been in Newark, so I definitely, like, have a heart for that community.

CARAPEZZA: For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.

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Kirk Carapezza
Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.