UC Riverside medical school grant aims to diversify physician workforce in Inland Empire – Press Enterprise

When Armando Navarro applied for UC Riverside’s medical school in 2017, he knew there was a lack of Spanish-speaking doctors — even in the diverse, Latino-heavy Inland Empire.

“When I got to UCR, for the first time I was seeing professionals succeeding in medicine who looked like me. That’s something I want to give back to future generations,” said Navarro, a 28-year-old from Southgate. “As a doctor, I want to be an entryway for families, who sometimes come in with limited knowledge or resources, to begin to understand their health. I see patients as my family members.”

Navarro’s school, the UC Riverside School of Medicine, aims to bridge the gap between Inland immigrant communities and quality health care. With help from a new endowment, the 8-year-old medical school hopes to diversify the local workforce by educating more minority students so they can become physicians.

A four-year, $450,000 grant from The California Wellness Foundation will help “build a new generation of diverse healthcare workers, by enabling underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in health professions,” a UCR news release states.

The Inland Empire is a “medically-underserved region,” UCR officials said. There are about 35 primary-care physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 70 or more per 100,000 people in other parts of California, the school reported.

At UCR, minorities represent about half of the students enrolled in medical school classes each year, officials said. Of the 78 students set to graduate in the Class of 2024, 50% identify as “underrepresented minority students” — Black, Native American, Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students.

Dr. Deborah Deas, vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of UCR’s School of Medicine, said in the release that the grant will support operating expenses and enhance efforts to “recruit, train and graduate students from underrepresented communities.”

Dr. Emma Simmons, senior associate dean of student affairs in the School of Medicine, said the dollars will also be used to expand training opportunities and student-to-health professional pipeline programs. One such program is the Medical Scholars Program, which is tailored to undergraduate students with financial need who are preparing for careers in health or the biomedical sciences.

UC Riverside medical students, including Armando Navarro, are seen in November 2019 at a school-sponsored clinic for migrant farmworkers in Thermal. (Courtesy of Armando Navarro)

“We recruit heavily from local high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities,” Simmons said by email. “The (funds) really make a difference in our students and future students’ lives.”

Officials said past grants from the foundation have helped ease students’ financial burdens, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. The money also allowed the medical school to bolster professional training clinics and launch wellness programs for students, such as yoga and meditation classes.

Judy Belk, CEO and president of The California Wellness Foundation, said in the release that diversifying the medical workforce is part of its strategy to provide “culturally competent” and “higher quality” healthcare for communities of color.

“Research affirms that when communities know their identities and experiences are respected, they’re more likely to seek out care and trust the treatments they receive,” Belk said. “We want to see more people of color becoming physicians because it’s a pathway to economic security.”

Armando Navarro, a fourth-year medical student at UC Riverside’s School of Medicine, is seen at his July 2018 white coat ceremony with parents Armando Sr. and Patricia Navarro, and younger siblings Vianney and Moises Navarro. (Courtesy of Armando Navarro)

A majority of UCR medical students are also first-generation college students, and the first in their families to finish college. Navarro, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, fits both categories. The Riverside resident, a fluent Spanish speaker, is now in his fourth year and specializing in family medicine.

Navarro was inspired to help immigrant families after working at clinics in Riverside, Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley as a pre-med student and while in medical school. After graduation in 2022, Navarro hopes to stay in Southern California to help marginalized groups with  limited access to healthcare.

He hopes more Latino and other underrepresented medical students go into the field to serve their own communities. It’s comforting for patients to have a doctor that can speak in their native tongue and guide them to better physical and mental health decisions, he said.

“As a provider, I want people visiting their doctor to feel understood, respected and empowered — it’s why I got into medicine,” Navarro said. “To help people who look like me.”

Crystal Witherspoon, a Crestline resident and third-year medical student at UC Riverside’s School of Medicine, is seen at her August 2019 white coat ceremony with her parents, Norman and Margaret Valentine, and her husband Michael Witherspoon. (Courtesy of Crystal Witherspoon)

Third-year medical student Crystal Witherspoon has a similar goal: to serve the underserved. The Crestline resident started at UCR’s premedical postbaccalaureate program, which helped her get into the medical school in 2019.

Witherspoon, who was born in Spain, said she has no medical professionals in her immediate family. She knew she wanted to go into medicine after seeing firsthand how health disparities affect the Black community.

As a young woman of color entering the medical field, she wanted to dismantle cultural barriers and prevent all-too-common chronic diseases in immigrant communities.

“Within the Black community, there are fears of going to the doctor because you’re afraid to be mistreated or get a wrong diagnosis, and then it’s too late by the time something happens,” Witherspoon, 27, said. “The history of racism in medicine from the past still has an impact to this day, especially for people in lower-income communities juggling multiple jobs, whose priority may not always be going to the doctor, or who don’t have access to nutritious food in their neighborhood.”

When she graduates in 2023, Witherspoon wants to go into primary care or obstetrics and gynecology, helping women in the Inland region. She noticed the lack of physicians for minority groups, especially for women of color, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and wants to make her mark in a typically male-dominated field.

Witherspoon applauds UCR’s effort to diversify its medical school, saying the campaign “empowers people to take control of their health” and gives students “the freedom to find local communities that need our support.”

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