Neal S. Simon
Chairman and President, American University of Antigua College of Medicine
Like most universities and schools of medicine, American University of Antigua (AUA) College of Medicine has had to modify its academic program in response to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, AUA was guided by two major principles: first, to maintain the quality of its medical education; and second, to do all that it could to protect the health and welfare of its students and faculty.
Focus on the community
AUA’s pre-clinical education takes place in Antigua, a Caribbean country that has responsibly managed the spread of the virus such that there have been no new cases reported in the last four weeks. However, most students — because of a combination of family obligations, fear of how the virus might spread, and a desire to volunteer in their home communities — decided to leave Antigua and continue their medical education remotely.
Neal S. Simon, chairman and president of AUA, stated that it was only through the tremendous effort of faculty and deans that AUA was able to transform to remote teaching in a short period of time without compromising its academic program.
A gross imbalance
Simon pointed out that organizations like the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) have predicted that the United States currently faces — and will continue to face — a significant physician shortage. The COVID-19 epidemic made the shortage readily apparent.
What the COVID- 19 virus has made even more obvious is the disparity in healthcare in the United States, with minority communities being significantly more negatively impacted by the virus. Simon believes that this disparity in healthcare is due in large part to the failure of U.S. medical schools to diversify their student population, with the end result of a physician population that lacks diversity.
While U.S. medical schools give lip service to increasing diversity in their student populations the number of African-Americans in United States medical schools is generally between six and seven percent. In comparison, 22 percent of the students in AUA‘s graduating class were African-American.
Fixing the problem?
Many U.S. medical schools have recognized this lack of diversity and have tried to solve the problem by offering courses in cultural competency. While such courses may be helpful, they do not replace the experience and learning opportunity of attending a medical school like AUA with a diverse student and faculty population.
Attending a school like AUA with a diverse group of fellow medical students, Simon said, allows students to experience and learn from the various cultures, races, and ethnicities that comprise the university’s student population. A course in cultural competency cannot provide the knowledge that one gains from living in a diverse environment — it simply can’t. These real-life experiences with fellow students from different races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds cannot be duplicated in a course.
A new opportunity
Simon also noted that a diverse student population, besides providing a great learning opportunity for all, also leads to a more diverse physician population that is more attuned to the disparities in healthcare and more clearly understands the tactics needed to alleviate these disparities. And, above all, students who study medicine in a diverse class could be more likely to practice in diverse communities.
The COVID-19 virus has provided us with ample evidence of the disparities in healthcare that negatively impact minority communities in the United States. It is essential that this issue is addressed now. And, through its educational program, AUA has shown the world that there is indeed a path forward.