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Ohio State Helps Pave A Path For Underrepresented Medical Students

Michael Lee
Miguel Ruiz is a second-year medical student at Ohio State and a graduate of the university's MEDPATH program.

As a child of Costa Rican immigrants, second-year medical student Miguel Ruiz grew up in a predominately Hispanic community in Miami. His family went back and forth from the U.S. and Costa Rica before settling down in Florida, so he was able to observe the differences in the health care systems between the two countries.

“Some of the problems were exacerbated by the fact that my parents were learning English as they went,” Ruiz said. “My dad was a painter at that time and my mom was either a stay-at-home mom, or if we needed extra income she was working at a grocery store.”

Ruiz is an alum of Ohio State's Medical Careers Pathway Post Baccalaureate program, also known as MEDPATH. Director Dr. Leon McDougle said it’s students like Ruiz who are prime candidates for the program.

“We evaluate those applications especially those who are from disadvantaged or from underrepresented groups,” McDougle said.

Medical school is normally hard to get into, but especially so for students with fewer educational resources growing up. Ohio State's MEDPATH is aimed at helping students from underrepresented communities get into medical school and give back to the community.

It works like this: People apply to the Ohio State University College of Medicine through the normal medical school application. The school’s admissions committee then refers them to the MEDPATH program, where the student will fill out another application.

If they meet a series of criteria, they’re accepted and spend a year taking courses both in traditional medicine and community service. If they finish, they get conditional acceptance into the Ohio State medical school - but McDougle insists it’s not just a handout to people who just missed getting in.

Sophia Tolliver, a MEDPATH grad who recently completed her residency at the medical school, grew up living in poverty in a single-parent home in Akron. She’s from a family with a history of morbid obesity and chronic diseases - as a kid, she thought fast food places were the best restaurants in the world. 

“I think that kind of inspired me to combat that later on in life,” Tolliver said.

Credit Michael Lee / WOSU
MEDPATH graduate Sophia Tolliver says she grew up in poverty in Akron, and her family's history with obesity pushed her to enter medical school.

Ohio State recently appointed Tolliver to its CarePoint East clinic. It serves what Tolliver called an urban, low-income, underinsured and underserved population east of downtown. She said whenever she walks into a clinic appointment, she sees her own family in her patients.

That means she can empathize with what they're going through, and she said it motivates her to look at patients as people and help them as much as possible.

“I know what it’s like to go to bed hungry," Tolliver said. "I know what it’s like to have the threat of, you know, your lights being cut off or maybe being evicted."

McDougle said it’s student like Tolliver and Ruiz that make MEDPATH work. Empathy in medicine is important, especially in underserved communities, and grooming doctors from those places is the best to improve health care.

“Students who are from communities that are underserved as it pertains to health care access, they are more likely to provide care in those communities after they complete training,” McDougle said.

Students of many different backgrounds means diversity, which McDougle says drives excellence and is needed to solve complex issues. He says in in 2016 alone, the Wexner Medical Center’s interpreter services received requests for 133 languages.

“We need diversity in our health care workforce to make a difference, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” McDougle said.

Michael Lee joined WOSU in 2021, but was previously an intern at the station in 2018. He is a graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism where he obtained his master's degree, and an alumnus of Ohio State University. Michael has previously worked as an intern at the Columbus Dispatch and most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times.