Duke admissions director highlights need for minorities in medicine

Monday, April 7, 2014 | 10:47 p.m. CDT; updated 6:26 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 8, 2014

COLUMBIA — Before Brenda Armstrong became director of admissions at Duke University Medical Center, she sat in as university officials reviewed admissions applications.

She was taken aback when someone mentioned an applicant had attended a "colored school."

She said, "What's a colored school? A red school? A blue school?"

Armstrong, who said she attended a "colored school" herself, was offended not only by the comment but also by what it represented: the lack of diversity in medical education.

Armstrong's Monday lecture, titled "The Urgency for Diversity in Medical Education: Time to Put Up or Shut Up," comes as the MU School of Medicine is stepping up its efforts to promote diversity. It still lags behind other Midwestern schools of similar size.

The Medical School's numbers of African-American students has typically been low, with rarely more than a handful admitted each year. But the number for 2007's incoming class was especially dire: zero.

That led the Association of American Medical Colleges, which oversees the country's medical schools, to criticize MU in its 2008 accreditation report.

Since then, the school has hired a diversity coordinator, and its numbers of minorities rebounded in 2008 with six African-Americans included in that incoming class.

The advancements have stalled, however, with the 2013 incoming class including only four African-Americans, or 4.2 percent of 96 total students — a small fraction compared to Missouri's 11.7 percent African-American population.

Although the Medical School has lagged behind other schools in admitting students who are African-American, its incoming summer class will be "the most diverse class ever," Les Hall, interim dean, said.

The numbers are preliminary, he said, but 24 of the 96 medical students who have committed to MU are minorities and nine are under-represented minorities.

Medical schools' demographics could impact public health, according to experts who say doctors are more effective at treating patients from similar backgrounds.

But it's not easy to change an institution, Armstrong said.

"It takes time to change," she said. "It takes an understanding that this work is everybody's work."

Robert Churchill, former dean of the MU School of Medicine, will deliver a lecture titled "Diversity in Medicine" at noon Tuesday in Room S-110 in Memorial Union.

Richard Webner contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Adam Aton.

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