Two young physicians are furthering their medical educations and doing cancer research with a foundation grant intended to support and encourage diversity among Mass General physicians.

Improving the ethnic and racial diversity of physicians in the workforce has long been a focus for Karen Winkfield, MD, PhD, director of Hematologic Radiation Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

MGH oncology fellows Alejandro Rauh-Hain, MD (left), and Ibiayi Dagago-Jack, MD (right), are using foundation grants to further their medical educations and conduct research.
MGH oncology fellows Alejandro Rauh-Hain, MD (left), and Ibiayi Dagago-Jack, MD, are using foundation grants to further their medical educations and conduct research.

Motivated by her own experience as a young African-American medical student with limited financial resources, she was pleased to have an opportunity recently to write a grant proposal for a program aimed at alleviating some of the financial burden for medical trainees in oncology. The grant, funded by a New England family foundation, supports Mass General’s effort to encourage the education of physicians from underrepresented backgrounds.

Dr. Winkfield selected two young MGH physicians from diverse backgrounds to receive the inaugural awards based on the strength of their applications and their interested in pursuing academic research. They are Ibiayi Dagogo-Jack, MD, a first-year oncology fellow of African-American descent and Jose Alejandro Rauh-Hain, MD, a gynecological oncology fellow from Mexico City.

Education and Peer Networking

Even small grants can ease the cost of a medical education, Dr. Winkfield says. And peer support, when doctors are in the early stages of their careers, can help encourage physicians who are underrepresented in medicine.

“It absolutely helps to reduce the financial burden,” Dr. Winkfield says.

Diversity among physicians matters because it can influence patient health.

As a student at Duke University School of Medicine, Dr. Winkfield recalls that finding the extra money for basics, such as books and a laptop computer, could be a challenge. It was something that differentiated her from most of her classmates, who were from more affluent backgrounds.

Grants are just one of several ways Mass General supports workforce diversity. In another example, the MGH Center for Diversity and Inclusion, has several recruitment and retention initiatives aimed at physicians and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, including, for example, the Resident and Fellow Committee, a peer-led organization that assists with recruitment and organizes social and professional events.

Why Diversity Matters

Diversity among physicians matters because it can influence patient health. For example, doctors from underrepresented backgrounds—including those who are African-American, Hispanic or Native American—often choose to practice in poor or diverse communities.

Dr. Winkfield points out that research shows patients are more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction with their care if they are seeing a doctor of a similar racial background, possibly because of better communication and rapport. Improved patient satisfaction may improve health outcomes.

“If you look at health disparities, the problem hasn’t improved,” she says. “In all areas—HIV, cancer, hypertension—blacks in this country have worse outcomes than any other ethnic group.”

A diversified physician workforce also matters for mentorship opportunities. Beyond their practice specialties, doctors need to be able to network and find career mentors. As the only black oncologist in the MGH cancer center, Dr. Winkfield says, she understands the need for more diversity.

“There are things that are unique to being a person from an underrepresented background that can make things a little bit challenging,” she says.

Research for Underserved Populations

Dr. Dagogo-Jack, 29, a first-year oncology fellow who is pursuing a career in thoracic oncology, will use the grant for several courses relating to the process of clinical trials and drug discovery.

“It’s a very pure profession in the sense that you really give up a lot of your life in order to help other people.”

She grew up in St. Louis, Mo., the daughter of two doctors, originally from Nigeria, which influenced her decision to pursue a medical career. She hopes to attract more participants from minority backgrounds to clinical trials. “That’s where I can apply my background,” she says.

Dr. Rauh-Hain, 34, who grew up in Mexico City, knew he wanted to be a doctor since he was a child. By the time he was 12, he wanted a career in helping people.

“It’s a very pure profession in the sense that you really give up a lot of your life in order to help other people,” he says. He plans to use the grant for travel to present his research findings at a national conference this year.

A Family First

The first doctor in his family, Dr. Rauh-Hain attended Universidad Panamericana in México City and is now conducting research on the disparities of women with gynecological cancers who are from underrepresented populations.

Patients undergoing cancer treatment often are at the most vulnerable point in their lives, he says, and need to be able to speak candidly with physicians. His cultural background and his fluency in Spanish have helped him to communicate with patients. “Just by talking with them, it helps a lot,” Dr. Rauh-Hain says.

To help support Mass General’s diversity efforts, or for more information, contact us.