Mentorship Match: Supporting Minorities Interested in Medicine

John Whyte, MD, MPH; Aaron Gilani, MBA; Jordan Saunders


August 07, 2020

Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

  • Prescribe it Forward is a free, online program that matches disadvantaged medical students with mentors.

  • Over 900 mentees and 850 mentors have signed up with Prescribe it Forward.

  • Medical students from disadvantaged backgrounds have more challenges, including lack of mentors, imposter syndrome, and overwhelming student loans.

  • The Black Lives Matter movement is encouraging, but it can be stressful and take a toll on busy medical students who are minorities.

  • The goal of Prescribe it Forward is to eventually become a one-stop shop for all areas of medicine.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD, MPH: Hey, everyone. I'm Dr John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. You're watching Coronavirus in Context.

There's no doubt of the impact of COVID-19 on minority populations. One of the ways to address that is to get more minorities in medical school, but it's not easy. We've been trying to do that for over 50 years, with limited success.

To help provide some insights, I've invited two medical students to join me today. Aaron Gilani is a third-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine, and his colleague, Jordan Saunders, is a second-year medical student at Indiana. Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Gilani, MBA: Thanks for having us. We really appreciate it.

Jordan Saunders: Thank you.

Whyte: I want to give some backstory. Aaron, you messaged me through Twitter and said, "Dr Whyte, I think you should cover an organization, a match I started with Jordan, called Prescribe it Forward." Tell us what Prescribe it Forward is all about.

Gilani: Prescribe it Forward is a 100% free, online platform that focuses on matching disadvantaged medical students, whether they be underrepresented in medicine, the first generation, identify as LGBTQ+, or nontraditional students. We take those students who may not have mentors in their life as they pursue medical school, and we pair them with students who are currently in medical school who either come from that background or are just someone willing to give back and educate someone through the process.

Whyte: How's it going, Jordan? Has it been successful? How many people have signed up?

Saunders: It's been very successful. We have over 900 mentees and around 850 mentors now. And yeah, it's blown up.

Whyte: I want to hear both of your stories, how you got interested in medicine, and your journey to medical school. Jordan, tell us when you decided you wanted to become a doctor.

Saunders: It started while I was mentoring middle school students in very marginalized communities in Baltimore, Maryland. I saw the impact of being a Black male in a role like a doctor or physician in higher education, and how they really look up to you. Being the only first-generation medical student in my family, it's just the impact that I can give to communities, especially Black men who don't see other Black men in higher roles and often become a victim of their own environment. That really is what inspired me.

Whyte: Did you have role models or mentors who encouraged you to go into medicine?

Saunders: Yes. However, I didn't meet my first mentors until around sophomore year of college. Even then, the inspiration that I got from seeing someone that I can connect with and who looks like me in medicine, it really made all the difference and encouraged me.

Whyte: Did people discourage you on the way, or were you lucky that most folks encouraged you to follow your passion?

Saunders: Well, I would say that I wasn't directly discouraged. However, going through the process, there were times when I felt like people did not expect that I could become a doctor, or they just doubted me a little bit. Over the course of high school and during the premedical process, seeing another Black male in medicine really inspired me in knowing that they've gone through the same process and have gotten to where I want to be.

Whyte: Aaron, you're on your rotations. That's why you're in your clinical garb — you're on the scene. We talked prior to this interview, and you mentioned the importance of reaching folks who don't have a lot of doctors in their family, may not have come from the most advantaged communities and prep schools, and so on. Tell our listeners your journey into medicine.

Gilani: I'm a first-generation American and the first in my family to graduate from a college in the United States, and hopefully soon to be the first doctor in my family.

Whyte: Congratulations.

Gilani: Thank you. It's due to a lot of support that I've had in my family and mentors that I've established. Starting off, it was pretty uncharted waters, I would say. There are a lot of unwritten rules that feel inherent in the medical school process: how to really reach out to people, what kind of classes to take, things like that. I was kind of on my own.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I always had an itch for business. I always had a creative side. I wanted to marry that with medicine because I have a deaf and blind brother who grew up in the hospital. He's the reason why my parents came to the United States. Wanting to take care of him, marry that with business, and affect healthcare on a large scale was something I wanted to do. So that's why I'm in medicine, and it's also why I went to business school before medicine ─ to really affect healthcare on a large scale.

Whyte: Was there a point in time for both of you when you said, "This is just too hard"? It's a lot of work and sometimes a battle of perseverance. It's expensive, taking out loans. Did you ever have that moment, Aaron?

Gilani: Absolutely. I know I did, especially during the first year in medical school. When you come to medical school, you're hoping to take care of people, but you learn that you still have to go through the rite of passage of learning the basic sciences and things like that. You're with a lot of people who have always been high-achieving students, just like yourself.

You start to wonder if you belong and whether you're as smart as everyone else. That can take a toll on you, but once you start getting into the hospital and take care of patients, as I'm getting to do now, it's definitely worth it. I'm really glad I did it.

Whyte: What about for you, Jordan?

Saunders: I definitely have had the same thoughts as Aaron. It happened twice to me. I played college football during my first year of college, and at that time, I really thought that it was going to be too hard. I was a little bit discouraged that no one else had done it as an athlete, at least at my school.

Whyte: Where did you go to school?

Saunders: My first 2 years I went to Marist College, and then I transferred to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During my first year, I really doubted myself and questioned whether it was really for me. Then during my first year of medical school, I battled imposter syndrome and doubted whether I belonged there or not. Similar to what Aaron said, as I got through the first year, I stopped comparing myself to others, and it came to mind that I belong here just like everyone else.

Whyte: Has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted you either personally or the medical school community where you are?

Saunders: It has impacted my family. We have been to Black Lives Matter movements in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's encouraging seeing it covered on TV and in the news. The back side of it, it can be challenging to deal with it alongside school for the reasons why the movement is happening right now. It was distracting and taking a toll on my family earlier this spring. But it is encouraging to see the support and how we're still talking about it today. It wasn't a movement for just a few weeks.

Whyte: Now, gentlemen, it's 2020. How do we not already have some type of match program that you've created to connect mentors and mentees? Why are the two of you doing it? Medical school is busy enough as it is, and you have to study all the time. Why didn't it already exist? Why are you two doing it now as opposed to later in life?

Gilani: That's a great question. We were honestly just as surprised as you were that it didn't exist. It started off because my personal board exams kept getting postponed due to COVID. I started reflecting and thinking about my classmates and the two groups of peers that I had — ones that came from a family of physicians or communities that churned out physicians left and right, and other students who were underrepresented or first-gen and just had to figure it out for themselves. At the same time, I coincidently saw a tweet from Jordan — Jordan, feel free to touch on that.

Saunders: So I tweeted out and it went semi-viral, but it was basically wanting to increase diversity in medicine and mentorship.

Whyte: What did you tweet? Tell us the tweet.

Saunders: I'll try to remember it, but it pretty much said how there need to be mentors in medicine for students who are pre-med or thinking about it. I offered to be a mentor for those who need it because it's had such a big impact on my life. I tweeted it and I got an overwhelmingly large response. I got a lot of direct messages and mentions.

Then Aaron reached out and helped me handle all the people who were coming to me asking for mentors. That's when he said, "Hey, I have an idea." It was to launch Prescribe It Forward. From there, the interest has been going up.

Whyte: Aaron is good at reaching out on Twitter, isn't he?

Saunders: Yes.

Whyte: So, what are you both hopeful for?

Gilani: This has already become bigger than we could have ever expected. Even if we just helped one person feel like they can achieve their dream of being a doctor, that's more than enough for us. Everything else is icing on the cake. We're having fun with it, and I think that's really important.

Our goal is one day for this to be a one-stop shop for all things mentorship and medicine. It's for dental and PA students, and for anyone who feels like they need someone to listen to and without having to pay an exorbitant amount of money that some services require of folks. It's really just an outlet for people to get answers and get some support for their dreams. That's our goal.

Saunders: I share the same thoughts as Aaron. To add to that, I think that it is important to make sure that individuals who want to go into medicine can dream big and be supported by others that they can connect with and share the same values.

Whyte: Prescribe it Forward. We're going to post the site right here. You're both on Twitter, correct?

Saunders: Correct.

Gilani: Absolutely.

Whyte: It'll blow up after this. I want to thank you both for taking the time. I also want to thank you for what you're doing to enhance diversity in medical school. I'm sure the future is very bright for both of you. Thanks for joining today.

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