March 13, 2012 Issue
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BA/BS-MD Program Innovating Undergraduate Pre-Med Education

BA/BS-MD Program Innovating Undergraduate Pre-Med Education

BA/BS-MD students taking part in a recent workshop on casting.

Flourishing CLAS Collaboration Reserves Spots in CU Medical School for Students Who Achieve on Auraria Campus

If you are a Colorado high school student who dreams of becoming a doctor, but you come from a family with limited resources or a geographical area where few people get graduate degrees – where can you turn for the kind of support to get you through the eight years of school required to become a physician? Since 2010, such students have found their way to the BA/BS-MD program, which the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences launched with the University of Colorado School of Medicine. CLAS partnered to create a combined-degree program that offers students from a variety of academic, economic, geographical, and cultural backgrounds a continuous path to obtain a baccalaureate degree and a medical degree within eight years; four years of undergraduate work and four years of medical school.

Charles Ferguson

Charles Ferguson

After long years of planning and preparation, Charles Ferguson, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Director of the Health Professions Programs, and Robert Winn, Associate Dean of Admissions for the School of Medicine, got the first cohort of students enrolled in the program in the fall of 2010. "What is important is to have programs in place for highly qualified students from diverse backgrounds that allow them an opportunity to fulfill their dream of becoming a physician. This program does that. It provides an opportunity for students who may not be thinking about going to college or don't think they can be successful in college an opportunity to get a degree and go to graduate school," says Ferguson. "More importantly, as the health care system in this country evolves, it is going to be more and more important that we as a state 'grow our own' as it were – to try to improve access to health care and to provide physicians across the state who understand the various cultural nuances of practicing medicine in a multi-cultural society or a rural community."

"There are students in the program, and who apply to the program each year, that will go to college and be successful regardless of where they go. Where depends on programs such as this." Ferguson continues, "But more importantly, there are students who apply to this program and who are in this program because of the program. They are the students who often hear the message that 'you're not good enough to go to college' or 'you're not smart enough to go to college' when in fact they are. They often come from families where the financial burdens of college tuition prevent students from pursuing something like medical school. This program provides the academic and nonacademic support that many of these high risk kids need to gain the confidence they need to be successful, and it provides an environment where they can really grow and become fabulous healers in the future."

Each year, up to ten qualifying high school seniors from the state of Colorado are accepted into the program as baccalaureate students. Places are reserved for them in the corresponding first year medical class on the Anschutz Medical Campus – as long as participants fulfill requirements and expectations. Students in the program must commit to completing their undergraduate degree in four years while maintaining a minimum 3.5 grade point average, participating in a variety of supporting and supplemental activities both on and off campus and attaining a minimum score of 28 on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). When fully phased-in, the program will have an ongoing enrollment of up to forty BA/BS-MD students on the downtown campus and forty medical school students.

Gavriel Roda (left), Thomas Ogas (center), and Kaysie Walter (right)

Gavriel Roda (left), Thomas Ogas (center), and Kaysie Walter (right)

Thomas Ogas, from the first cohort of students enrolled in the BA/BS-MD program says, "My mom was a dentist in Mexico and wanted to move to Colorado because the University of Colorado is one of the few schools in the nation that offers an accelerated program for foreign-trained dentists. When I found out CU Denver also had a combined undergraduate/medical school program, I was thrilled!" His time in the program these first two years has not been a disappointment. "My experience with the program has been outstanding. Through the BA/BS-MD program, I have been given so many opportunities to explore my interests both within and outside of medicine. In addition to becoming a better rounded person, the camaraderie that comes with being in this program has been invaluable. It is humbling and inspiring to see how talented and passionate my classmates are! I find comfort knowing that I will one day be working with such amazing people."

Gavriel Roda, from the second cohort of students agrees, "Over the course of this year, we have been introduced to so many physicians, medical students, and professors, all of which are extremely passionate about their careers. We have met numerous individuals whose stories describe the immense overcoming of obstacles – it is inspirational. I have the utmost respect for the people who have sacrificed their time to help this program. It is because of their help and their presence that has made BA/BS-MD both humbling and rewarding. I have learned that physicians are equally as compassionate as they are intelligent. It's not just about the diagnosis; it's about listening to the patient as a person, rather than just an individual who can cure them."

Colorado faces an urgent need to increase the number, the diversity, and the geographical distribution of primary care physicians. According to 2010 statistics, of the state's sixty four counties, four have no doctors at all, thirty two have marginal shortages, and twenty four have acute shortages (defined as one doctor for every 1,500 or more people). Only four counties have the ratio recommended as sufficient by the American Medical Association – one doctor for every 1,000 or fewer people. Although there is acute need for primary care physicians, primary care practice is losing popularity and is now chosen by only one out of every five medical graduates nationwide.

There is evidence that physicians from underrepresented groups aspire to provide primary care to the communities they come from, and an objective of the program is to increase the number of doctors available to underserved populations in Colorado. Kaysie Walter, from the original 2010 cohort says, "I definitely see myself going back to work as a primary care physician in a rural area of Colorado, if not back to my hometown. I grew up on a ranch in Southeast Colorado, near the small town of La Junta. Growing up in a small, close-knit community taught me to appreciate individuals' stories and struggles, which has influenced my decision to go into primary care. I like the idea of being versatile in my practice and being able to treat a wide variety of ailments. In addition, primary care is appealing to me because preventative health care is essential to an individual's health. Through my career as a primary care provider in rural Colorado, I will have the opportunity to serve a large number of people in an area of Colorado that needs more primary care physicians.

"One major advantage of doing both undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Colorado Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus is by the time each BA/BS-MD student becomes a physician, he or she will know the needs of Coloradans better than a student who did his or her undergraduate studies in another state," astutely observes Ogas. "While our program is ethnically diverse, I believe our group is more diverse in our ideologies, where we were raised, how we were raised, our personalities, etc. Yes, we are diverse, but we all have one unifying theme: we are all equally passionate about healing people. I can honestly say my passion for medicine is always growing. I often tell people that I would be the luckiest man alive if I find something that I love more than medicine."

Trishia Vasquez

Trishia Vasquez

The impact of the BA/BS-MD program on campus is not isolated among students in the program. Trishia Vasquez, the BA/BS-MD Program Coordinator on the downtown campus, says other pre-health students are making connections with BA/BS-MD participants and gaining from the experience. "Other students are in classes with BA/BS-MD students, or they meet up in student housing, and see that the BA/BS-MD students know what it takes and what they need to do to get into medical school. The BA/BS-MD students serve as ambassadors, and they are supporting other students by encouraging them to show up to events and to get involved academically and non-academically. Particularly the UHL students (the University Honors and Leadership program), they are making connections with our students and getting more involved with our program informally every day."

The third BA/BS-MD cohort will start classes in the fall of 2012. The application cycle that ended in January saw the program receive a total of 107 complete applications; all regions of Colorado were represented including the Denver Metro area, Haxtun, Battle Mountain, Fruita, and Del Norte. Forty-two students were interviewed and the committee chose ten students from diverse backgrounds to be part of the third cohort. Students have until the end of March to accept or decline. For those who do accept, before they ever step into a CU Denver classroom they will be put through a "Boot Camp" that will start getting them in the mindset of "Being a Physician."

Roda, from the second cohort of students who began the program this past fall, remembers what this was like, "Dr. Ferguson told us in the beginning of the year that this program was going to challenge us -- to the point where we would wake up one morning and reconsider our decision to become a physician. He's right. However, he also told us that when motivation begins to falter, to close our eyes and think 'doctor.' I just think 'Dr. Roda' and I push on."

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