Striding toward a physician workforce that meets community needs
Florida State University’s efforts to diversify the medical profession in ways that would address unmet community health-care needs began when the SSTRIDE program was launched in 1994.
Nearly three decades later, on Oct. 14, 2021, almost 150 SSTRIDE alumni gathered for a virtual reunion via Zoom to celebrate the program’s successes – and their own.
“I would not have had a career in health care if it wasn’t for SSTRIDE and the support and assistance I’ve had over the years,” said Desiree Jonas-Strickland, who dual-majored as an FSU undergraduate student in family and child science and exercise science.
She went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in public health at Florida A&M University and is now a health policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. A Madison native, she got involved in SSTRIDE in seventh grade and remained all the way through her undergraduate studies. Seeing African Americans in prominent health-care roles expanded her horizons.
“I remember thinking, ‘This person looks like me – and they’re doing it,’ “she said.
SSTRIDE (Science Students Together Reaching Instructional Diversity and Excellence) works with teachers to identify students with an interest in math or science; then it provides additional in-school instruction in advanced science classes, tutoring, standardized test preparation, professional development, life experiences and mentoring to ensure the students have the skills they need to be competitive as a medical school applicant or to succeed in other health-care careers. That includes making sure they take the right classes to get into college, where USSTRIDE (the university-level equivalent) continues the mission. An important aspect is encouraging students while they navigate their educational journeys.
Jackie Hanners (M.D., FSU College of Medicine Class of 2021), an OB/GYN in her first year as a medical resident at LSU Health in Shreveport, La., describes herself as a “pipeline baby” who grew up in rural Crestview. She credits her mentors for convincing her she could be a doctor by “constantly reminding me that I am good enough.”
It was a familiar refrain throughout the evening’s program, peppered with phrases including “believed in me,” “made me believe in myself” and “I never dreamed I could be a doctor before SSTRIDE.”
Thesla Berne-Anderson, the College of Medicine’s executive director of outreach, summed it up nicely: “This is a place where dreams come true.”
‘We can do this’
Berne-Anderson, SSTRIDE’s founding director, was hired in 1993 as the outreach coordinator for the Program in Medical Sciences (PIMS), a collaboration among FSU, FAMU and the University of Florida College of Medicine in which FSU and FAMU students wanting to become physicians took their first-year courses at FSU and completed their training at UF.
Myra Hurt, director of PIMS at that time, knew that it was critical to increase the number of women and people of color in the medical profession, which in the early 1990s was dominated by white men.
“My personal goal was to diversify the admissions pool,” Hurt recalled in a documentary shown during the virtual celebration. “I knew deep inside me that we could do something about this and give them [women, minorities and others from rural areas] the proficiency they needed. We’re teachers. We know how to do this. This is not rocket science. We can do this. Why hasn’t somebody done this before?”
When Hurt hired Berne-Anderson, she charged her with finding a solution to the gap in minority application, acceptance and successful completion of PIMS.
“My game plan was to create a program that would address the challenges that minority students face, and that would provide opportunities that would engage, inspire and stimulate their interest toward science and medicine,” Berne-Anderson said.
With her background teaching middle school, she knew where to start. After researching what other universities were doing, she decided on a more holistic, comprehensive approach that focused on early intervention and stakeholder buy-in. The numbers speak for themselves:
Between 1994 and 2021, 2,505 middle school and high school students participated in SSTRIDE. Of those, 65% were female. Racially, 41% were Black, 33% white and the other 26% a combination of Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Native American. Of the 1,134 who could be tracked, all but 4% went to college or joined the military, or both.
Of 352 college graduates the evaluation team tracked, almost 24% went to medical school, 19% went to a health professional school or graduate school in a STEM field, and 15% went to grad school in a non-STEM field.
When the Legislature voted in 2000 to create FSU’s College of Medicine, SSTRIDE was written into the law as a pipeline to help achieve the mission of helping medically underserved communities in Florida, particularly older patients, minorities and residents of rural areas.
Extending the pipeline
Other outreach programs were created to continue the pipeline support, such as the Summer Institute, Minority Association of Pre-Med Students (MAPS), USSTRIDE, and the Bridge Program. They, too, have produced inspiring success stories. For example, the Bridge Program, which offers a year of intensive training to prepare for medical school admission, has had 206 participants since 2001. Three-quarters have been female and four-fifths ethnic minorities; 91% successfully completed the program and went on to medical school.
As for outcomes, Bridge has been highly successful in achieving its purpose to produce more physicians who will work in areas of need: 75.5% of FSU alumni physicians who started in Bridge are now practicing in a primary-care specialty (family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and OB-GYN).
Helen Livingston developed the Bridge Program, she said, after Hurt gave her a brochure for a similar program and said, “We want one of these.”
“I developed that, with Ms. Anderson’s assistance, so we had a “bridge” program for students who were not quite ready for medical school but with some assistance, could get ready in a year’s time,” Livingston said. She ultimately molded the Bridge Program into a one-year master’s degree program.
Rashad Sullivan (M.D., ’13), an orthopedic surgeon and the celebration’s keynote speaker, is a Bridge Program success story. The third of nine children, his early years were marked by poverty and dealing with family members’ addiction and incarceration.
He credits “God’s grace and the open hearts of a lot of people.”
He even met his future wife, Natalie Alphonse (now Dr. Natalie A. Sullivan), at a MAPS meeting. The FSU undergrad alumna went on to medical school at Wake Forest University. She and her husband share four children. They have
“We are here tonight to celebrate one of the most significant contributions to my success story,” he said. “SSTRIDE changed my life.”
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