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Houston medical schools bringing quality healthcare to neighborhoods that need it most

HOUSTON – Ashley Howard found her dream job as a community health professional, trained by and working for the University of Houston. She spends her days helping people in the same minority community she grew up in live healthier lives.

“Because you’re not educated about health,” she said. “You know like growing up in a poor community, you’re not taught about health.”

A former certified nurse’s aid and a single mom raising two young children, Howard knows from experience that people living in under-served, low-income neighborhoods face huge barriers when it comes to quality healthcare.

“My job is basically to teach them,” she said. “That’s why I took up this cause so I can come back to the community and teach them what I know.”

Lack of quality healthcare

If the lack of good healthcare in Houston’s low-income communities wasn’t apparent before, it is now with the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Monday, there were just under 17,000 positive cases in Houston and Harris County, and more than half of them have been either black or Hispanic patients. There are also nearly 6,000 cases of unknown race and ethnicity, of which most are believed to be minorities.

Not only that, but a whopping 22% of people in Harris County can’t afford to see a doctor, a number slightly higher than the 18% across Texas. Of those who can’t afford a doctor, more than half are black or Hispanic.

New approach to serving under-served communities

The University of Houston’s brand new medical school is aiming to change that through a ground-breaking program.

“Our medical school has as its mission to improve the health and healthcare of our population with a real focus on training more primary doctors to serve under-served communities,” said Dr. Stephen Spann, the school’s founding dean.

The school is encouraging more minority students to train to be primary care doctors and then assigning them to work with a single, low-income family for all four years of their education.

“We basically stay with that family all four years,” said Maya Fontenot, one of the school’s inaugural students. “And we learn what it takes to really take responsibility for the complete health, the complete holistic health of the family.”

Fontenot is both black and American Indian. Her entire $100,000 tuition is covered by the school and her goal is to eventually treat people solely in minority communities.

“Now I can fight for my people and fight for others that I feel like are going through the same thing that I see my community going through,” she said. "I can be a part of that fight as a physician.

Other Houston-area medical schools are focusing on minority communities as well.

University of Texas Medical Branch

“Part of (the) core curriculum offers classes that focus on social determinants of health (SDH), offer real-time experience providing care to marginalized patients, students conduct health fairs and screening programs. Providing patients with opportunities to take classes in disease management, cooking for health, exercise, and stress management.”

Baylor College of Medicine

“[In] orientation, we have a longitudinal health disparities curriculum. Students learn about SDH through case studies, lectures and site visits. We are also planning to introduce anti-racism programming as part our Learning Communities advising system.”

UT Health

“Part of school curriculum is the Community Action Poverty Simulation. There is also a student-led project called UTHealthCares.”