Encouraging the Next Generation of Doctors

April 09, 2018 10:56 am David Mitchell

People gave Renee Crichlow, M.D., needed encouragement on her path to becoming a doctor. Now she's doing the same for others.

[Headshot of Renee Crichlow, M.D.]

Crichlow was 12 when a nurse asked her that quintessential question that made her think about her goals and abilities: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I said, 'Well, people like to talk to me, and I'm good at science, so maybe I could be a doctor,'" Crichlow said. "She said, 'Renee, I think you would be an excellent doctor.'"

It wasn't easy. Crichlow didn't complete her undergraduate degree on her first try. Or her second. Financial constraints prevented her from staying in school, so she worked as a phlebotomist. She liked the job, but it wasn't her dream. Fortunately, a physician colleague reminded her of that.

"Renee," he said, "someday a young doctor is going to come in here and give you a lab order, and you're going to think, 'Wait a minute. I wanted to be a doctor.'"

Crichlow went back to school at the University of California, Santa Cruz -- this time, with help from an NIH scholarship. From there, she moved on to the University of California, Davis, to complete medical school and residency.

Now, Crichlow is a mentor, serving as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and associate program director of the North Memorial Family Medicine Residency, both in Minneapolis. She also is chair of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine's (STFM's) Emerging Leaders Fellowship, where she herself was a fellow.

While serving in that STFM program, Crichlow developed The Ladder,(theladdermn.org) a cascading mentorship program that encourages youths from low-income communities to pursue medical careers. The program, now in its sixth year, brings together students from fourth through 12th grades, college students, medical students, residents and physicians once a month. The idea is for participants to learn from those who are on rungs ahead of them.

Each monthly event has a theme with hands-on learning stations run by med students and residents. For example, a meeting focused on lungs might include stations devoted to reading a chest X-ray or how to use a stethoscope.

Mentors also share their personal stories, and Crichlow has shared her tale of attending three colleges and earning her undergraduate degree at 27.

"That surprises a lot of kids," she said. "Failure and resilience are important parts of learning to become a doctor. They need to know that it's OK to fail if you learn from it. I fail, too, but I keep getting up."

The Ladder has helped boost North Memorial's minority recruitment, Crichlow said, because rotating medical students are exposed to the program. The Ladder also is replicable, and a toolkit to help do so is available. To date, St. Paul, Minn., and Dayton, Ohio, have established their own chapters.