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Can this Kansas City nonprofit get more Black medical students to stay in town after graduating?

A portrait of an African American couple standing in front and beside of a white fireplace mantle. A large mirror sits on top of the mantle, along with a white lotus plant and a black, stone bust. The husband, on the left, is wearing a black and grey suit and tie with a black sweater vest. The wife, on the right, wears a grey sweater and dark patterned scarf. Both are wearing easy, relaxed smiles.
Zach Bauman
The Beacon
From left, Michael and Jamila Weaver are looking to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine with the Mission Vision Project KC.

Studies show Black patients have safer outcomes when working with Black doctors — who make up less than 6% of that workforce. Mission Vision Project KC supports underrepresented minority medical students and pushes for more physicians of color.

Dr. Michael Weaver in 1977 became the first Black student to graduate as a physician from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine program that leads students from high school to both bachelor’s and medical degrees in a streamlined six years.

From there, Weaver embarked on a 40-year career at St. Luke’s Health System, where he has held many roles, including director of emergency services, director of the sexual assault center and medical director of equity, diversity and inclusion. He also returned to his med school as a clinical professor of emergency medicine.

Throughout his career, Weaver has often been asked to mentor Black students from the medical schools in the area: the UMKC School of Medicine, University of Kansas School of Medicine-Kansas City and Kansas City University. He was happy to do so. And then inspiration struck.

“I said, ‘What if I got all the underrepresented minorities at all three medical schools all together in one building at one time, then what would that create?” Weaver remembers.

That was 17 years ago. He organized the first “critical mass gathering” of underrepresented minority students and physicians, naming it after the principle of physics that it takes a certain critical mass to sustain momentum or movement.

“It’s really about creating a sense of community and creating a sense of belonging, and the students need to have that,” Weaver said. “And the doctors that already are practicing need to have that because we want doctors to stay in Kansas City. You’re not going to stay somewhere that you don’t feel comfortable.”

Weaver’s critical mass gatherings are now part of something bigger. Two years ago, with others, he founded Mission Vision Project KC, a nonprofit that works to recruit and support underrepresented minority students in the medical field and encourage them to remain in Kansas City’s workforce.

Across the nation, medicine is a predominantly white field. Despite representing 12% of the nation’s population, only about 5.7% of physicians in the United States identify as Black or African American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Mission Vision is looking to even out this disproportion.

“As a child growing up in Kansas City, it didn’t occur to me that health care was a place where I could work and enjoy a career,” said Jamila Weaver, a nurse and former facilitator for diversity, equity and inclusion training at St. Luke’s Health System who volunteers with the Mission Vision Project.

“So what drives the work that we do now is helping young people to be able to see themselves in a career that’s rewarding, fulfilling and meaningful.”

Why Black doctors are important

While the annual critical mass gatherings have been a longtime tradition of Weaver’s, Mission Vision Project KC has taken on other roles.

It provides financial assistance for students to take the preparation courses necessary for the costly U.S. Medical Licensing Examination process. And it sends doctors and other medical professionals into area middle and high schools to spur student interest in medical careers.

According to Weaver, one of the greatest assets for a medical student from an underrepresented group is guidance from someone who shares their lived experience.

“Once you open their eyes and help them see this opportunity, they need mentorship, they need to see people who can help them navigate the pathway to get into medical school, navigate the pathway to be successful in medical school, navigate the pathway to graduate and go on to residency,” he said.

Kai Simmons, a graduate from the KU School of Medicine, shares similar sentiments.

A native of the San Francisco area, Simmons is currently the only Black medical school graduate in a residency program for head and neck surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Black physicians represent just 1% of the physicians who practice head and neck surgery, he said.

Simmons attended his first critical mass gathering in 2018, and as a Black man at a school where Black students made up 3% of the student body, it was a pivotal moment in his journey to be among doctors who look like him.

“From the moment that I went to the event, I was immediately inspired by the purpose of the critical mass gathering,” he said.

“Having the opportunity to have Black and brown physicians from every medical specialty and being able to network with these folks and seeing people that look like you was something that’s incredibly inspiring.”

Medical inequality

One of the biggest roadblocks for underrepresented minorities in medicine is the financial burden.

The average total cost of medical school is $230,296, according toEducation Data Initiative. And that price tag has increased by almost $1,030 every year since 2015.

“Those of us that don’t come from intergenerational wealth are having to figure these things out, while their classmates have resources that kind of paved the way,” said Jamila Weaver, who is married to Michael Weaver.

A challenge for Mission Vision Project KC is convincing young people to attend school and practice medicine in this region.

“One of the other things that we want to do is to help raise full-ride scholarships for underrepresented minorities here in Kansas City,” Michael Weaver said. “Because what happens is that the big schools on the east and west coast offer full-ride scholarships to our talented students. And they go there and they don’t ever come back.”

Simmons, who plans to practice medicine in California where he grew up, said young doctors of color want to work in a region with peers and mentors who also represent minority groups.

“I think a lot of people are interested in being where there are people that they can see themselves around,” he said.

Simmons added, “If Kansas City could market themselves as a destination for people of color, I think they’ll find more people of color. But that doesn’t seem to be the narrative.”

Weaver and others in Mission Vision Project KC know that keeping doctors of color in Kansas City is crucial for patients.

Unconscious bias against patients of color is prevalent in many aspects of medicine, including mental health.

In the United States, Black women are twice as likely as white women to experience life-threatening pregnancy-related complications, but these chances are cut in half if they’re taken care of by a Black doctor.

Communities of color also have higher infection ratesof COVID-19 and death.

What’s next?

Mission Vision Project KC is looking to expand its critical mass gathering model into other specialties, such as dentistry, pharmacy and nursing. Its founders are also planning to create more opportunities for networking outside of the annual gathering.

Simmons, the KU medical school graduate, has remained involved with the organization since his first critical mass gathering.

He is trying to help expand the model into California.

“We don’t have anything like the Mission Vision Project or the critical mass gathering in Los Angeles,” he said.

“Cedars-Sinai has so much support that they can offer for projects like this. So I want to see if there’s an opportunity for me to do similar things here that the Mission Vision Project has done in Kansas City.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Corrected: March 29, 2023 at 3:06 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misstated Jamila Weaver’s work status. She is a former facilitator for DEI training at St. Luke’s Health system.
Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.
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