When 45 energized college freshmen and sophomores graduated from Prep Médico in July, they joined a choice group of more than 150 students who have learned what it takes to get into medical school and reinforce their desire to address health inequities among their future Latinx patients.

The pathway program, which was started four years ago by UC Davis and Kaiser Permanente, addresses a critical need across California: to boost the number of doctors who care for the state’s increasingly diverse and underserved communities, particularly in rural areas such as the Central Valley.

"Despite their incredible contributions to California’s culture and economy, Latinx communities continue to experience significant health disparities due to access barriers and poorer quality of care," said Hendry Ton, UC Davis Health’s interim associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. "UC Davis is committed to serving the health of California’s diverse community, and Prep Médico is an important part of that promise."

The collaboration between The Permanente Medical Group and UC Davis aims to prepare college students to provide culturally and linguistically relevant care to Latinx patients. It was recently honored with a Quetzal Award from the Latino Leadership Council, a regional nonprofit that connects Spanish-speaking communities with services in Sacramento and Placer counties.

Over the course of the program’s six weeks, bright-eyed students — most from underrepresented populations in/from Central or Northern California — spend nights at Sacramento State dorms and days in classrooms at the UC Davis School of Medicine. They also explore other parts of the medical center campus, Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics, and provide screenings at a migrant labor camp.

"This program has been excellent, really, really excellent," said Lucas Cunha, who attends Skyline College south of San Francisco. "I came here thinking maybe they’ll show you ways to transfer to a university or get into medical school, but it’s so beyond that, so deep. You make connections, you make friends, you meet leaders that work at Kaiser."

"All that helps you to pursue your dream and show you that you really can do this."

Unforgettable moments

An unforgettable moment for Andrea Gil, who attends Sacramento City College, was when she gowned up and watched the surgery of a child with third-degree burns at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Northern California. Now she, too, wants to be a surgeon.

"I felt like I was awakened just because I could see what these people, who have worked so hard in school, can do to save somebody else’s life," Gil said. "I almost wanted to cry tears of joy because they were able to do that for someone else."

Prep Medico students during class

Prep Médico, which also goes by the tagline “Navigating Your Path into Medicine,” started in 2016 out of concerns about how best to provide health care to the Latinx community — a group that makes up about 40% of the California population but only 5% of the state’s physicians. The name is short for Preparando Estudiantes Para Ser Médicos, or Preparing Students to Be Physicians.

About 100 students from community colleges and four-year schools apply for the program, whose eligibility requirements include factors such as demonstrated interest in medicine and serving Latinx populations. Thus far 175 students have completed it, including July’s fourth graduating co-hort.

In addition to teaching science, statistics, communication and public health, Prep Médico "empowers our students with the knowledge of how to navigate their pathway to medicine, the confidence to access needed resources, the conviction that they have a vital role to play in medicine," Ton said.

Firsthand disparities

American River College student Marykay Maduike landed two valuable mentors — including one in obstetrics/gynecology, a field the Nigerian-born and Belize-raised sophomore hopes to pursue. Maduike, who describes herself as shy, said the program gave her the confidence to "come out of my shell and ask someone, 'Hey, can you please by my mentor?'"

Prep Médico also solidified UCLA student Hector Acosta’s dream of becoming a doctor in the Central Valley community where he grew up. As a child farmworker laboring in Kerman, west of Fresno, he saw first-hand how family members suffered from health conditions related to their occupation.

His father, who is still a farmworker, "ended up tearing his meniscus from years of wear and tear of bending over picking tomatoes, lettuce." His uncle has pulmonary emphysema due to excess dust and smoke from burning wood.

"Seeing those chronic conditions develop over time in the farmworkers who are predominantly Hispanic, it really hurt me, especially seeing it within my own family," he said.