P.A. department’s URiM Mentorship Program gaining momentum

Brianna Weston
Staff Writer

Ethnic minorities in this country have historically had a hard time accessing quality healthcare and receiving good patient-provider communication. According to americanbar.com, racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white Americans. Unfortunately, little headway has been made on this issue despite the need.

Dr. Lavette Shirley Elee, a board-certified physician assistant and an assistant professor of physician assistant studies at Wingate, came from a military background. Growing up, she was exposed to all ethnicities on a regular basis.

She vividly recalls a time when her older sister was extremely ill and the doctor treating her barely paid attention and very quickly dismissed her case.

\“My sister was slurring over her words,” Elee recalled, with frustration in her voice. “If I didn’t have my medical knowledge, I don’t think he was going to admit her [to the hospital].” Thanks to her background, the disconnect was very noticeable.

In a 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers sought an answer to this question: Does diversity matter for health?

To find the answer, they coordinated an experiment and randomly assigned patients (black males) to doctors (black or non-black males) to determine if race concordance affected patients’ decisions about preventive care.

Researchers concluded that patients in the concordant group agreed to more invasive, preventive services than those seen by non-black doctors. It was theorized that this effect seemed to be driven by better communication, comfortability and trust.

Everyone knows the benefit of increased diversity in American healthcare, but medical programs like Wingate’s Department of Physician Assistant Studies continue to graduate mostly white females. According to a 2019 statistical report from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, African Americans account for only 3.6 percent of physician assistants practicing nationwide, despite making up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population.

That study indicated that mentorships were helpful in not only recruiting but retaining medical students who are considered underrepresented in medicine (URiM). It was shown that mentorship programs are closely linked to increased career satisfaction, the likelihood to participate in research and overall career advancement.

“When my son had surgery, the doctor stood across the room and gave little detail on the procedure; then I watch him cross the hall to a white [couple] and shake both of their hands with a comforting smile,” Elee said with a long face as she fiddled with her ring.

Such actions can make minority patients distrust doctors, according to Elee, who was inspired to make an impact on the problem after her negative experiences.

URiM students often struggle to find mentoring opportunities, which led the Wingate P.A. school  to establish a program aimed at supporting them. “One of my biggest goals since becoming a teacher at Wingate University is to make a difference one student at a time,” Elee said.

At Wingate, Elee has provided faculty-development exercises and information sessions on diversity and implicit bias. In her implicit bias course, she explains how even good people can unintentionally make judgments without being aware of it. “I knew my first step in making progress in my goal was to start thinking about mentorship programs,” she said.

The requirement to be considered for the mentorship program is that undergrad students from Wingate, UNC Charlotte and the University of Georgia should be strongly considering the P.A. profession. The focus is mainly on URiM students, but Elee will not exclude those who are not. “We would love to catch people their freshman year, male and female,” Elee said.

The mentorship program, which has enrolled 69 mentors and 76 mentees,  is for pre-P.A. students, current Wingate P.A. candidates and WU graduates. The mentees attended a lecture and luncheon on campus March 24, when “we wanted to allow prospective students to come to campus and attend a real class,” said Elee. Eighteen mentees showed up and had the opportunity to hear Elee deliver a lecture on thyroids.

Elee matches up mentees with mentors who have similar preferences, likes and dislikes after they fill out a survey. To establish ground rules and get direction on how to proceed, mentors must complete training before meeting their mentees for the first time.

Ultimately, Elee’s goal is to spread awareness about implicit bias and the ways that Americans can diversify their thinking about healthcare. “I know I am one person, but if I can increase diversity here, then one day I can increase the awareness to surrounding states and so on,” she said.

For more information about the P.A. mentorship program, contact Elee via email at l.shirleyelee@wingate.edu.

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