Tennessee State University (TSU) and Meharry Medical College, two historically Black academic institutions in Nashville, today announced a new partnership focused on establishing a pipeline of African-American doctors and dentists who will provide essential care to underserved communities. The initiative is named after one of TSU’s most distinguished graduates, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., an internationally renowned cardiac surgeon who holds an honorary degree from Meharry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for greater commitment to eliminating health disparities among African American communities and to advance health equity among all underserved populations. The newly created Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Institute/TSU/Meharry Accelerated Pathway Program seeks to address both of those issues.
The historic agreement will recruit, select and support the medical education of a cadre of African American students who are interested in becoming physicians or dentists. The overriding goal is to increase the number of African American trained health care providers who will stay and work in minority communities that have the greatest burden of health care needs.
“African Americans continue to be underrepresented in medical schools,” said TSU President Glenda Glover. “This partnership will help level the playing field, and give them better opportunities that they so deserve. We look forward to working with Meharry Medical College to produce African American physicians, and dentists, who will serve the communities that need them most. Even more, we’re so proud to have the initiative named after the esteemed Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., one of our own. He was a game changer, and so is this partnership.”
Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, President and CEO at Meharry Medical College, said the announcement is significant for many reasons.
“We remain committed to training more Black doctors who will go on to serve in minority communities, and this partnership will provide more opportunities for Black students,” said Dr. Hildreth. “I am especially delighted about this partnership, as Dr. Watkins was a key mentor throughout my medical training and blazed the trail for me and countless other minority students who had been told there wasn’t a place for us within the medical community. I hope this new program will honor Dr. Watkins’ memory by continuing to prepare the way for minority students interested in medicine.”
The accelerated program seeks to reduce the amount of time it takes students to enter medical school. The traditional four-year Bachelor of Science degree will become a three-year program—students will spend three years pre-med at TSU before going on to study medicine or dentistry at Meharry. The result is total completion in seven years, instead of the customary eight years.
Recent reports from the Association of American Medical Colleges show the growth of Black or African-American medical school applicants, matriculants and graduates lagged behind other groups, despite increasing efforts by colleges and institutions to create a diverse physician workforce. The proportion of Black medical students who identified as African American or Black grew from 5.6 percent in 1980 to 7.7 percent in 2016. That’s a substantial increase, but still short of the 13.2 percent in the general population.
The late Dr. Watkins is known worldwide for being the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a human patient at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.
He was also a pioneer in civil rights at Johns Hopkins University. He fought to diversify the medical staff and student ranks at the hospital. His legacy of recruiting and mentoring minority students helped to change the landscape of the medical profession.
“In the nation and around the world, COVID-19 has revealed even more the need to eliminate health disparities among African Americans and to advance health equity,” said Barbara Murrell, the chair of the Institute. “TSU and Meharry are responding by providing an accelerated pathway to prepare African American physicians and dentists to serve underserved communities. It’s only fitting that the program is named for Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., who was a pioneer in advocating for more African American physicians and health equity.”
Students participating in the pathways program will be those with the highest academic preparation and quality. Requirements for admission will be based on a 3.5 grade point average, a score of 1300 on the SAT (two components) or a 29 on the ACT. Mentoring, tutoring and coaching will be crosscutting elements of the program, as will be career and professional guidance for all students involved.
“This partnership between TSU and Meharry will definitely increase the number of African American physicians and dentists,” said Dr. Nolan McMurray, interim dean of TSU’s College of Life and Physical Sciences. “And it will address the health disparities affecting the African American community, not only locally, but globally.”
The Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Institute is projected to welcome the first cohorts in the fall of 2021-22.