February 22, 2022, 12:08 p.m. David Mitchell — Black men account for less than 3% of U.S. medical school faculty. As one of them, Leon McCrea, M.D., M.P.H., feels compelled to reach out to students from groups that are underrepresented in medicine and help them along the way.
“Any student who asks has my cell phone number, and a lot of times I give it without them asking for it,” McCrea said. “If you need me, text me because part of the reason I’m here is to help people who look like me, or people who have had a similar experience, get from the beginning to the end of this journey. I’m just a tour guide.”
Actually, McCrea is Drexel University College of Medicine’s senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion; an associate professor of family medicine; director of Drexel’s postbaccalaureate Pathway to Medical School program; and interim residency program director.
“There definitely is a tax that is a feeling of obligation to support every student you can because you know that there are going to be challenges,” he said. “There are committees you need to sit on and opinions you need to give. But I would be even more concerned if I wasn’t in those rooms, because who’s giving that opinion if I’m not there? Who’s speaking up for those who aren’t being counted if I’m not there? I feel a professional responsibility to lean in on that, not lean away from it. It is a tax I’m willing to pay because I’m doing what I love to do.”
McCrea is president-elect of the Family Medicine Education Consortium’s Board of Trustees and faculty for the AAFP’s Chief Resident Leadership Development Program. He also serves on the Association of Family Medicine Residency Directors’ Diversity and Health Equity Task Force, as well as the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine’s Under-represented in Medicine Oversight Committee.
McCrea came to Drexel in 2015 as an associate professor and program director of the family medicine residency. One of the first changes he made as director was doubling the number of Match interviews the residency program conducted.
“What we were able to do was increase diversity, not only racially and ethnically but also in terms of the types of schools we pulled from,” McCrea said. “When we look at folks, we need to look at characteristics beyond just the numbers and the scores or what school an applicant was from. I can’t tell you how many times in an interview process someone was like, ‘Oh, I know what the students are like from that school.’ ‘Oh, I know that letter writer.’ ‘Oh, this place always puts out a good product.’ That’s its own set of prejudicial behavior.”
McCrea said diversity strengthened the program by bringing “new and exciting points of view.”
“Diverse groups just do better,” he said. “They take better care of patients. They bring in new, interesting and unique ideas about patient care, so they solve problems better. We have students from all over the world, and we have students who come from financially disenfranchised backgrounds. We have folks who relate to our patients and those that don’t relate as well. Well, when they all get in the room, they can say, ‘Let me tell you a story about something that happened to me in my life.’ Let’s pull together and marry our stories and see if we can come out with something that’s going to work well for everybody.”
McCrea said that approach has made the program resilient. When Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital closed in 2019, it displaced more than 550 residents and fellows. The family medicine program was the only residency program that remained intact, moving in its entirety to the Tower Health hospital network.
“To me, it’s no coincidence that this group stayed together,” McCrea said. “Nineteen of my 21 residents stayed when they had an option to go anywhere else in the country. We only lost one faculty member out of 16 or 17 through that transition.”
McCrea said program director is “the best job in medicine,” but he stepped aside last fall. However, he recently became interim director because his successor, B. Brent Simmons, M.D., is starting a new residency program with Delaware Valley Community Health.
“My job is to prepare for the next person because if I stay in that position forever, someone else can’t come and grow into my spot,” he said. “If you’re creating a leadership pathway, at some point you’ve got to step aside so others can lead.”
Since 2020, McCrea has been director of Drexel’s Pathway to Medical School program. The one-year, Master of Science degree program accepts students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and/or belong to groups underrepresented in the medicine. Students who complete the program and achieve academic and professional benchmarks are accepted into Drexel’s medical school.
McCrea said the program receives roughly 600 applications per year for about 55 slots. More than three-fourths of students accepted to the pathway program matriculate to the medical school. In 2021, 19% of Drexel’s first-year medical school class of 303 students was Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
“It’s an important contributor to the school,” McCrea said of the pathway program.
Wherever his own career leads, McCrea knows he wants to teach. After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in human biology, he took a break from his own studies to teach ninth grade biology at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
“I knew I wanted to go to medical school, but I had this craving to teach and felt like if I didn’t do it then, I might never,” he said. “Philadelphia had a teacher shortage at that time, and I was able to get emergency certification. It reinforced that teaching was always going to be a part of what I did. It helped me remember that I liked making the complex simple. And I think there’s a component of teaching in what we do with patients every day. It felt natural. And I love teaching residents and medical students, so it all came together for me.”