Journey of the Underrepresented: The Fight for Social Justice

The Journey of the Underrepresented series of articles was written by Asha Blake, a local photojournalist and senior at Kent State University, to explore challenges and barriers faced by underrepresented minorities in the health professions.

Social justice is a concept that is worth fighting for. Individuals in a society should have equal access to opportunities, wealth and basic human necessities. Distributing these opportunities so that oppressed populations can have a better chance to help themselves and their communities is a complex issue.

In the health care field, the representation of Black and Latinx professionals does not reflect the diverse population that is continuously growing in the United States. However, individuals like Joseph Zarconi, M.D., are doing their best to train medicine students to become advocates against the injustices in the world.

Dr. Zarconi is the Medical Director of NEOMED’s Social Justice Pathway (SJP) Program, newest of the Integrated Pathway Programs in the College of Medicine.

In line with NEOMED’s commitment to health humanities education, the COM curriculum includes specific content related to health care disparities, health equity and social justice.

To further enrich that area, especially for students with an interest in social justice, Dr. Zarconi engaged the leadership of Michael Appleman, MA.Ed., director, Primary Care Education, and associate director, Integrated Pathway Programs, and other faculty colleagues to make these curricular efforts more explicit. “We developed this program so that students not only get the baseline of social justice education, but also the enrichment in these areas as well,” Dr. Zarconi says.

Within the program, students engage with a broad array of experiences related to social justice to expose them to current issues in health care, and what can be done to make it more just. With this training, students can be better prepared for the professional world to advocate for their coworkers and patients. “We hope to see more of our pathway graduates getting involved in advocacy work as doctors,” Dr. Zarconi says.

Navigating Roadblocks

While the faculty team works hard to prepare students for the health care workforce, it is hard to ignore the reality of the lack of diversity among health professionals.

Socioeconomic factors play a large role in the lack of diversity amongst medical students. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to withdraw or be dismissed in the first two years of medical school. This creates the gap in diversity that the health care workforce is currently experiencing.

Although the reasons for students to withdraw from a university varies, it is difficult to ignore the fact that it is more likely to be someone from a lower socioeconomic background. For some, the expense of a medical education may be prohibitive. The application, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and all the other resources needed to get into a college of medicine can be a financial roadblock for many applicants.

The lack of role models also can affect underrepresented minority (URM) students immensely. It is important for children to see the endless possibilities of their future. If a Black or Latinx student were to see more health professionals that looked like them, that could promote more curiosity that may make them want to pursue a career in medicine in the future.

Dr. Zarconi believes that there needs to be better advocacy throughout the education system going all the way back to grade school, to demonstrate to URM children that it is possible to become a health care professional. One strategy has been to engage URM faculty members in urban schools to speak to students about the appeal of health care careers, and allow these children to see and hear from health care professionals who look like them. This helps students have a visual representation of a career they may not have thought was possible before.

As these students progress in their education, the advocating should continue through high school, undergraduate degree, medical school and throughout their professional careers. To help these individuals in their journey, Dr. Zarconi mentioned that non-URM students and professionals can help by being allies. “We need to engage with our URM colleagues at whatever level we are at and learn how to help them to strengthen the diversity of our profession,” he says.

It is important to ensure that URM students are comfortable in their social settings. For some, they may be the only Black or Latinx student in their classes. That can cause a lot of stress for many individuals, but with the right support and allies they may prevail.

While it is important for URM students to have strong supporters and allies, they too should be strong advocates for themselves. Harvard Business Review reports that the best practices to promote better self-advocacy is to be specific about your end goal and to create a roadmap. It also detailed that individuals should develop their confidence so that they feel more empowered.

Dr. Zarconi mentioned that to help address the diversity issue in the health field, all health care professionals, URM and non-URM alike, must be seen, be heard and be active. “It is important to counteract the systems that obstruct equity in health care,” he says.

While achieving social justice may take some time, it can still be advocated for by people who believe that equity is a human right. 

Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to get to where they want in their life. To do that in the health care field, the system must change so that URM students have better chances and more openings to get into the health professions.

The Social Justice Pathway at NEOMED

The Social Justice Pathway at NEOMED introduces medicine students to contemporary social justice issues that intersect with medical practice. It also fosters critical thinking on social issues and compassionate care for underserved, marginalized or otherwise socially disadvantaged or vulnerable patient populations.

Faculty in the pathway program include Nichole Ammon, M.S.Ed., Michael Appleman, M.A.Ed., Julie Aultman, Ph.D., John Boltri, M.D., Rachel Bracken, Ph.D., Stacey Gardner-Buckshaw, Ph.D., and Joseph Zarconi, M.D.

Learn more about NEOMED’s Social Justice Pathway


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