UC Davis has received a $1.8 million grant to create a robust pre-med pathway for rural college students. It’s the university’s latest initiative to boost the number of primary care physicians in underserved parts of Northern California.

The new pathway, known as Avenue M (the M is for Medicine) will identify community college students interested in studying health sciences. Staff will provide academic support, ensure students’ seamless transfer to any of three participating four-year colleges, then steer them toward the UC Davis School of Medicine.

Avenue M is the newest pathway developed by UC Davis in response to the shortage of primary care physicians in rural, medically underserved areas of California, most of which are challenged by health disparities.

“The new Avenue M program is critical for students who have the aptitude and desire to enter the medical fields yet may not have believed attainment was within their reach,” said UC Davis Provost Mary S. Croughan. “Like its predecessors Avenue E and Avenue B, which focus on engineering and biological science respectively, Avenue M will help us better fulfill our commitment to serve students from all backgrounds as well as our region as a whole.”

The three-year grant was awarded through state legislation to the Foundation for California Community Colleges under its California Medicine effort, a coalition of educational leaders, medical providers, elected officials and others committed to producing a diverse physician workforce to advance health equity. The foundation extended the award to UC Davis and three other institutions that will work with partner community colleges to establish Hubs of Healthcare Opportunity: UC Riverside, UCSF-Fresno and UC San Diego.

Avenue M is part of a collaboration with the School of Medicine, the UC Davis STEM Strategies group, Sacramento State University, Cal Poly Humboldt and Kaiser Permanente Northern California. It also includes other medical and health serving organizations creating an ecosystem of more than 20 community colleges in 14 California counties that feed into the universities. Community college districts are Los Rios, Sierra, Solano, Yuba, Redwoods, Siskiyou, Mendocino, California Tribal College and Shasta-Tehama-Trinity.

Targeting rural, medically underserved areas

The initiative places an emphasis on drawing students from certain underserved regions, such as rural Northern California, in hopes they will return to those areas as primary care physicians. Ample evidence shows that an effective way to produce doctors to practice in rural, medically underserved regions is to recruit and train students who have deep ties to those communities or completed residency there.

The School of Medicine’s Center for a Diverse Healthcare Workforce has researched the critical role of community colleges in the academic pathway of primary care physicians. A recent national study of family medicine found that 51% of Latino and 33% of Black or African American residency trainees attended community college.

The School of Medicine has launched numerous initiatives over the past 15 years to improve the health of California’s diverse population, especially in areas where there’s a shortage of doctors, through its Community Health Scholars (CHS) pathways like the REACH program. In addition, the school was among the nation’s first to adopt holistic admissions practices which prioritize multiple factors beyond a student’s test scores, including their journey getting to and through college.

“UC Davis School of Medicine is a nationally recognized leader in training the next generation of diverse physicians who will help solve California’s health challenges,” said Susan Murin, the school’s interim dean. “The Avenue M collaborative is an exciting new way we are partnering to advance health equity and significantly improve the health of diverse communities statewide.”

Will likely improve student diversity

The CHS pathways and holistic admissions have also significantly boosted the number of students from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine. The school recently ranked No. 3 in diversity for medical schools nationally, according to U.S. News & World Report.

UC Davis is an ideal fit for Avenue M because of its extensive experience in community college partnerships, said Beth Broome, senior advisor to the provost and head of UC Davis STEM Strategies.

Broome’s office was instrumental in establishing the university’s Avenue B and Avenue E pathways.

UC Davis also has a long track record of opening its doors to community college students — 21% of the students admitted to the fall 2021 term were transfer students. In addition, 42% of UC Davis undergraduates are first-generation college students. Students from such backgrounds are more likely to be primary care doctors, according to UC Davis medical school leaders.

Avenue M will soon hire staff and begin outreach at community colleges from Sacramento to the Oregon border. The first cohort of 50 students is expected to join in early 2023 and transfer to UC Davis, Sacramento State or Cal Poly Humboldt within two years of enrollment, a much quicker timetable than the average community college student. Each year, another 50 students will join the initiative.

Providing critical support to students

Students will receive financial support and access to mentors, networking and academic resources if needed. Once at the four-year university, they will continue to receive support, including advising and cohort meetings, tutoring, wrap-around services, and test prep skills. Students will also have opportunities to shadow health professionals at Kaiser Permanente.

“Building and diversifying the health care workforce is a common goal we share with UC Davis,” said Roderick Vitangcol, physician-in-chief, Kaiser Permanente Sacramento. “Avenue M will provide new opportunities and experiences for students from backgrounds that are currently underrepresented in health care, and it will help Northern California health care providers meet the needs of our increasingly diverse communities.”

If scholars decide they no longer wish to pursue medicine, Avenue M will provide off-ramps to other allied health careers, ensuring successful career trajectories for all cohort members while increasing the regional health professions workforce.

One of the highlights of Avenue M is how it will bolster diverse STEM talent from underrepresented and historically excluded backgrounds throughout Northern California, said Charlene Green, director of outreach, recruitment and retention for the School of Medicine and principal investigator on the grant.

“By strengthening relationships across education, clinical, and research sectors, Avenue M disrupts the dominant culture and reduces barriers to entry to medical and health care careers,” she said.

The co-principal investigator is Tonya Fancher, associate dean workforce innovation and education quality and director for the Center for a Diverse Healthcare Workforce at UC Davis.

Learn more: Email UC Davis STEM Strategies at stemstrategies@ucdavis.edu.