Inside Penn's Pipeline for Minority Health Care Research Students
Seventeen undergraduates interested in a summer-long immersive reality experience in the field of health services research have begun their summer studies in Penn's 13th annual Summer Undergraduate Minority Research Program (SUMR).
Sponsored by the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) and the Wharton School's Health Care Management Department, the three-month program engages the students with an academic health care discipline that tends to be almost as invisible as it is important.
"Health services research is not well understood by outsiders," said LDI Executive Director David Asch, "It's largely about the principle that you can't manage what you can't measure. In the last 25 years, the field has made great strides in applying science to the task of measuring the performance of physicians, the performance of healthcare delivery systems and the quality of patient outcomes."
"Our SUMR program, which has been enormously successful in attracting talented students, is also an annual process that has been as enjoyable as it is enriching for our academic community," said Asch, who is also a professor at both the Wharton School and Penn's Perelman School of Medicine.
LDI is one of the country's largest health services research centers coordinating the work of more than 200 senior fellows investigating the medical, economic, and social issues that influence how health care is organized, financed, managed, and delivered across the U.S. Each year, more than 200 undergraduates apply for its summer minority research program and less than 20 are selected.
"It's a rigorous process," said Joanne Levy, Director of the SUMR program and Deputy Director of LDI. "Some of them have a sense of what health services research is about and others are looking for an alternative to bench research."
Feed the pipeline
"One goal of SUMR is to feed the pipeline for our Health Care Management PhD program and another is to bring minorities into the field," Levy continued. "Many of our scholars are the first generation of their family to go to college. A lot come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and bring a different set of sensitivities to health care issues. That's good because we have very few minorities in this field and we know the questions that researchers choose to investigate are questions that are important to them and reflect their own interests and past experience. For instance, many of the SUMR students are very interested in health care disparities."
One of those is Spencer Stubbs, a Penn junior from South Plainfield, N.J., studying nursing sciences. "Health care disparities have been a 'lived experience' for me," he said. "I grew up in a single parent household where my mom didn't have health insurance and I saw the barriers she had to overcome just to get her treatment. It made me very interested in the social determinants of health."
Stubbs and his fellow SUMR scholars are now getting crash courses in health economics, statistics, management and analysis; attending presentations of leading health researchers; preparing to travel to the AcademyHealth conference, the country's largest annual gathering of health services researchers; and working with faculty mentors on 12-weeks of intensive "hands-on" research.
Some of the issues being explored in this year's research projects are barbershop sexual health interventions targeting young African-American males, the special health needs of returning female veterans, end-of-life decision making for patients and doctors, and how ICU staffing models affect outcomes for severe trauma patients.
This year's scholars, who receive summer stipends of up to $6,000, hail from Penn, Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt, George Washington and other schools across the country.
Barriers of class and race
Adrienne Smallwood, a senior at Harvard studying biology and global health and health policy, said the interest in health disparities that led her to apply for the SUMR program began when she worked as a volunteer in hospitals and community clinics during her high school years. "You could see the disparities with kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. I noticed the barriers between minority patients and physicians. I've seen barriers related to class among lower-income Americans of any ethnic background and I've seen health disparities related to race, either due to subconscious racism or a gap in opportunities."
For her SUMR research project, Smallwood is working with Kristen Feemster, assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to investigate infection control policies that prevent the spread of whooping cough in emergency departments.
Faculty mentor, Zachary Meisel, emphasized that the SUMR scholars' research projects are not "make work" or simulated exercises.
"One of the things that makes this program so valuable is the degree to which it immerses undergraduates in very real research," said Meisel, an emergency physician and assistant professor at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine.
'Helped me immeasurably
"Last year, my first two SUMR scholars helped me immeasurably in a qualitative research project," he said. "It was on factors associated with repeat ER visits by recently hospitalized patients, a subject on which I hadn't done a lot of work previously, so we all went through it together. They enabled me to do things I would not have been able to do without them. They learned a lot. I learned a lot. It was a win-win."
"This year my SUMR scholar is Anand Gopal, a Penn senior from Nazareth, Pa., who is studying biology and health economics," said Meisel. "We're working on a project that is a lot earlier on in its stage, so its tasks are a lot less well defined. The two of us are starting from scratch on something that has a lot of pieces and requires that we conceptualize together at a very high level -- and that makes it a great learning experience."
"I also have to say that back when I was a pre-med student in college I didn't know what health services research was or what kind of opportunities there were in thinking about merging health policy and scholarship and medicine," said Meisel. "I didn't find out about any of that until very late in my training. That's why I think engaging this really bright and diverse group of students as early and as deeply as SUMR does is great for the students and generates a lot of downstream benefits for our field."
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Hoag Levins is Editor of Digital Publications at the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI).