20th Anniversary of Program for Aspiring Medical Professionals

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative, a program giving minority high school students a taste of a career in medicine. Born of a partnership between Eskenazi Health and the Center for Leadership Development (CLD), this program offers insights from medical students, experiences in a hospital setting and college admission guidance in order to increase the number of minority physicians in Indiana.

Nearly 80% of Indiana doctors were white in the early 2000s according to a 2023 longitudinal assessment of physicians by Indiana University School of Medicine’s Bowen Center for Health Workforce Research and Policy. Fewer than 4% of physicians were identified as Black or African American, with percentages of those identified as Hispanic/Latino or Latina/Spanish lower than 3%. Pioneering Black surgeon George H. Rawls, M.D. founded the Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative to help reverse these disparities. The program now serves up to 50 participants per year, with hundreds of young people taking part during its two-decade run.

Eskenazi Health’s program partner, CLD, has been offering professional development and educational opportunities for minority youth in Central Indiana for more than 40 years. All participants in Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative have reflected on their personal, educational and career goals as graduates of CLD’s Self-Discovery/Career Exploration Project (SD/CE), a program for those in tenth through twelfth grades. The Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative enables SD/CE alumni/ae to apply skills they’ve learned at CLD while exploring a medical career.

Members of the initiative have a busy schedule. After their orientation  they have six weekly evening sessions, followed by a graduation. Members tour Eskenazi Health’s downtown campus in their scrubs. Notable stops now include the emergency department, the helipad, the ambulance and the OR. Participants hear from health care leaders and shadow staff at the Smith Level I Shock Trauma Center at Eskenazi Health. They also visit the Marion County Coroner’s Office. The program, while still stressing the life of a physician, has expanded to encourage those interested in other medical careers. A skills fair introduced last year with stations in specialties such as radiology has nearly doubled for this year’s participants.

Perhaps most crucial to these aspiring medical professionals is talking with the young people whose career trajectories they may soon follow. In one program session, participants have the opportunity to speak with current minority medical students and residents. In another session, they can confer with local college representatives about admissions.

The program’s combination of educational and on-the-job offerings reflects its founder. Dr. Rawls was one of the first Black surgeons in Indianapolis, where he practiced for 34 years before joining IU School of Medicine as a clinical professor of surgery and assistant dean of student affairs. He was the founding director of the Master of Science in Medical Science (MSMS) program.

“Everyone knew Dr. Rawls in this town,” says Kimberly Curry, Eskenazi Health’s director of specialty clinics and the program’s leader. “People spoke so highly of him and what he did for this community.” Young participants in the program, she says, “knew who he was.”

In addition to his prestigious medical career, Dr. Rawls was renowned for his championship of minority representation in medicine. He was granted an honorary doctorate in science from IU School of Medicine for these efforts. In addition to the Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative, he started an orientation for new minority medical students at his school and established a scholarship for minority medical students. Other medical scholarships are given in his name.

Curry expresses pride in former participants’ successes, such as past member James Knight II, M.D., now in the final year of his radiation oncology residency at University of Kentucky College of Medicine, and alumna Jayla French, a third-year medical student at IU School of Medicine who spoke to the 2023 class. Curry also remembers physicians from other cities calling Dr. Rawls, eager to copy the program.

Before 2020, Dr. Rawls spoke at the Rawls Scholars Medicine Initiative orientation and closing ceremony every year. He gave autographed copies of his book, “So You Want to Be a Doctor?,” to participants. Since his passing, his daughter, Bettye-Jo Rawls Lloyd, M.D., has spoken in his place. Curry says that Dr. Rawls “would be overjoyed” to see his program still thriving twenty years after it began.

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