By Cory Phare
When we talk about access to health care, it’s usually about how patients can (or can’t) get the services they need.
Access into the career pipeline to become a physician or one of the 16 other health-care-related positions that can deliver care isn’t a given either, however, especially for students who’ve already had to overcome odds to set foot in college classrooms in the first place. Shadowing current professionals and applied medical research relies on a supportive network to make connections to those opportunities, even as underrepresented communities face growing disparities in the number of representative practitioners serving them. And, of course, it costs a lot of money just to apply to graduate schools.
From this, it’s clear that some folks are set up with more advantages heading into the profession than others. Denver Health’s Healthcare Interest Program is changing that, though. The effort matches Metropolitan State University of Denver students with mentors, educational programming and clinical experience to serve a workforce poised for 18 percent growth by 2026, as well as addressing issues of equity in delivering care to those who need it.
Here’s how the program has made a transformative impact in the lives of three current and former MSU Denver students – and the future of health care.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Eddie Romero-Moreida: I was born and brought up in Santa Maria, California, in a single-parent family; my mom raised my sister and me, working two or three jobs to make ends meet. As a result, I had to grow up fast and recognized the cycles of poverty that so many families could get caught in. I started seeing school as a way out – there were different things I wanted to do, and I needed education to get there.
Alma Ochoa: I moved from Mexico to the United States in 2010. The language was difficult at first, but I worked several jobs where I was able to practice my English. When I started at MSU Denver in 2012, it was a struggle – but thanks to programs like HIP, TRIO Student Support Services and the Colorado-Wyoming Alliance for Minority Participation (housed within the Center for Advanced STEM Education), I got involved in research and found a great support network.
With their help, I was able to graduate – I’m truly grateful for the support in so many different areas.
Seth Hosford: I’m originally from Franklin, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston. I joined the Navy, then moved out to Colorado afterward. And though I started at a community college, I realized my goals were bigger – that’s when I chose to come to MSU Denver, where I’m majoring in biology.
How did you discover you wanted to go into health care?
SH: Honestly, I didn’t really know it at first. I’ve always really liked helping people with their problems; I also love science, so it was a natural fit there. In the military, I was really into personal training, so that turned into a lust for knowledge. Becoming a physician was a natural way for those things to come together.
AO: When I started at MSU Denver, I wanted to be a Spanish teacher – but after I took biology to meet my science requirements, I fell in love with science. Then I had anatomy and physiology and realized I’d really like learning more about the human body. That’s when I decided to go into medicine and double-majored in biology and Spanish, graduating this past May.
ERM: It was a bit of a winding road. I grew up around a lot of physicians – I was born with cerebral palsy, so was used to being within the health-care system. When I moved out after high school, I worked 3 a.m. to noon to put myself through community college, taking classes noon to 7 p.m., but initially questioned whether or not a medical career was in the cards for me.
At that time, I started to explore Christianity more – I was raised Catholic but wanted to go deeper into my own sense of what it all meant. It took me to a religious institution in Hawaii; that’s when I reconnected with my decision to go into the health field, now with the confidence to know I can make it. And when I saw the value MSU Denver offered for the upper-division classes I needed for my exercise science major and pre-health-care minor, I knew this was the right fit – I’m paying for everything, so that’s important.
What was your experience like within the HIP?
AO: It was so helpful – it’s really hard to get into the medical field when you don’t know physicians and need the hours of shadowing. I was taking classes and doing research, but HIP was the first time I really spent time in the hospital environment; it was exactly what I needed.
I got to shadow Mandy Thompson, a physician assistant in Denver Health’s kidney-dialysis emergency center. And at first, I didn’t think she’d want to take the time to talk to me, but that wasn’t the case at all – everyone has been so helpful, and we’ve stayed in touch even though it’s over.
Another benefit was the six-week phlebotomy program at Denver Health, which leads to a certificate to work afterward. It was a great opportunity to go to different clinics and provide a service to the patients.
ERM: I worried they’d look down on me as a transfer student who’d been stumbling along and without that network already in place. But that wasn’t the case at all – everyone was extremely warm and welcoming.
It’s been absolutely huge for me and helped point me in the right direction. And before, in labs and classes at other schools, I was one of maybe 12 nonwhite students – it was a culture shock. In HIP, it was reassuring to be around professionals that looked like me.
SH: Before HIP, I tried cold-calling and emailing medical practitioners, to zero response. Thanks to the program, which I learned about from my former professor (Michelle Tollefson, M.D.), I was able to work with doctors and learn from a variety of opportunities. I ended up shadowing Dr. Eric Peterson for a year in a primary-care facility in a Park Hill clinic. It’s been completely invaluable.
The biggest takeaways were seeing how the health-care system delivers service and how much people put their lives in the hands of their physicians. Patients go to the doctor to be fixed; they need people to listen. And given the volume demands, that health-care practitioner might only have 20 minutes to get to the bottom of what’s going on. You really see the growth, progress and degradation that’s part of the medical field.
What does the future hold for you?
SH: I’m super-interested in both preventative and emergency medicine – both ends of the spectrum. Lifestyle medicine is one of the most recent specialties you can go into; it’s really more about treating someone as a whole and preventing as many maladies as possible with a systems approach. This is done by examining diet and exercise and understanding the impacts of environmental and genetic factors. It’s an exciting area that is uncovering new information every single day.
AO: Shadowing a physician at the emergency dialysis center solidified my dream of becoming a nephrologist. Since I’m applying for medical schools next year, I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for the MCAT (admissions exam) right now; I’m also currently working as a lab research assistant in the University’s Department of Chemistry as well.
ERM: I actually just accepted a position with DaVita as a patient-care technician, which I’m really excited about. The connection and confidence I got from the HIP is directly responsible for that – we had a panel with DaVita just a few weeks before about working in health care. My end goal is to become a nurse practitioner or a PA (physician assistant), and this is a huge step.
What do you see as the social and civic elements of health care?
AO: It is essential. There are so many issues that could be prevented if people had more options and knowledge of how to live healthier. Think about the high-sugar sodas and snacks children have in our schools. If we spent resources on helping people eat better and stay active, we could keep a lot of them out of the hospital in the first place. And creating that mentality benefits both our community and the health-care system.
SH: We’d go into Denver Health every other Friday and have bedside discussion about health-care disparities – along with ways to promote healthier communities. We’d cover areas like addressing food deserts and underprivileged groups who might not have access to insurance due to their documented status.
That connective component is infused throughout the program, from the other students to faculty members and medical practitioners. It’s so important, and I’m so grateful for everyone who makes it possible. It’s all based in community.
ERM: One of the biggest things I learned in HIP was that, yes, you have physicians, but it’s really a huge team effort. It’s breaking past perceptions that some roles aren’t as important as others and focusing on a shared priority, being aware of our presence everywhere we go.
In health care, we’re all there together to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities. We’re there to help and to heal.
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