Guest Editorial

Going 'Back to School' Helps Inform, Inspire Teens

I've always respected teachers. My mother is one.

It was my mother who encouraged my interest in science, who built my confidence and helped me realize my dream of becoming a doctor.

Marshala Lee, M.D., talks to Greenwood, Miss., high-school students about careers in medicine. Lee, a second-year resident in the University of Maryland Family and Community Medicine Residency Program, will be piloting the AAFP's version of the Doctors Back to School program this spring.

My respect for teachers has never been greater than after spending a day in their shoes or, more specifically, a day in my mother's classroom. A decade after I graduated from high school, I recently went back to Greenwood, Miss., to talk to students at my alma mater about careers in medicine.

Doctors Back to School( is an AMA program that has been around for more than 10 years. Its goal is to increase the number of minority physicians and eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities. The AAFP, with the AMA's permission, has developed its own version of the program, adding information specific to careers in family medicine.

My residency at the University of Maryland plans to pilot the program at middle schools and high schools in Baltimore this spring. The trip home to Mississippi was a dry run.

My previous teaching experience was limited to tutoring in college and working in my residency's program (funded by an AAFP grant) aimed at curbing childhood obesity. On this day in early April, I made six presentations to 11th- and 12th-grade science students -- about 130 of them.

I have to admit, I was nervous. Sleepy teenagers in my first class didn't help, but as the day went on, the students became more receptive, and I got better.

After that first class, I tweaked the presentation to make it more interactive and gave it a "Jeopardy" format.

  • A: This standardized, multiple-choice exam is designed to assess a student's problem-solving, critical thinking and knowledge of science concepts and principles.
  • Q: What is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)?

We put the students in teams of four or five, and the team with the most correct answers earned bonus points toward their next science tests. What I found out is that if you want to keep a teenager's attention, you'd better keep it fun and relevant.

The students I met in Greenwood were smart. These were advanced science classes -- anatomy, biology, chemistry and physics -- that I was talking with. But they also face obstacles. Roughly 90 percent of students in this school near the Mississippi Delta are black teens from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. The majority of them qualify for a free lunch program. The community's teen pregnancy rate is high, detouring many bright kids from college and a better future. They need encouragement and inspiration. Family physicians can provide both.

For my discussion, I used a PowerPoint presentation provided by the AAFP, but I added slides about black pioneers in medicine, such as

  • Jocelyn Elders, M.D., the first black surgeon general;
  • Ben Carson, M.D., the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins; and
  • Mae Jemison, M.D., a primary care physician who became the first black female astronaut.

Again, make it relevant.

Often, teens don't know what they want to do until they see it for themselves. We can be that role model. I told the students that 10 years ago, I was in the exact same spot they are in now.

"I come from where you are," I said. The message is that careers in medicine are not far-fetched, regardless of circumstance. I did it. They can do it. We talked about scholarships, the importance of doing well on standardized tests and the availability of financial aid.

So how did it go? The students' evaluations of my presentations showed that

  • 91 percent of them learned something new,
  • 41 percent already were interested in careers in medicine and remain interested, and
  • 26 percent were not interested in careers in medicine before the presentation but are now.

I look forward to seeing if we get similar results in Baltimore schools that have similar minority populations.

If the AAFP moves forward with this program, would you be willing to go Back to School?

Marshala Lee, M.D., is a second-year resident at the University of Maryland Family and Community Medicine Residency Program.