Seattle World School students explore their futures in healthcare careers
The classroom is bustling with motion. The music video for ‘Stayin Alive’ by the Bee Gees is playing on the classroom whiteboard and streaming out of the ceiling speakers. High-school students are huddling on floor mats practicing CPR on training manikins. Laughing but also serious, they keep the beat of the song on each of their turns practicing chest compressions.
The University of Washington School of Nursing staff are hovering nearby, watching and offering suggestions on technique, but the students are finding their groove.
These students are enrolled in Seattle World School Teen Health Center’s Healthcare Careers Week hosted during July 2022. The annual event highlights a unique effort to close the racial gap in health care.
Listening closer, a visitor would overhear languages from around the world. Somali. Vietnamese. Spanish. Each one of the sixteen students are young immigrants, having arrived in Seattle recently from across the world.
First launched in 2019, the program introduces immigrant youth of color to health care professionals and hands-on learning across different sites. At the same time, the program is an investment in the future. There is a nationwide healthcare staff shortage, doubly so for culturally competent health care.
For many students, this was their first opportunity to talk with a health professional and freely ask questions about careers. Overall, over twenty guest speakers took part in the busy week sharing their different perspectives and experiences.
Having the guest speakers also explain how to apply and pay for higher education was also just as important for the students says Yenifer Mendoza, Patient Navigator at Seattle World School Teen Health Center.
“There is amazing talent in these young folks,” says Mercedes Delgado, Patient Navigator Supervisor at the Teen Health Center. “I always feel there is more to do that we don't have time to get to. This is only a little seed, the beginning of what we need to really diversify our healthcare workforce.”
A unique place with a unique impact
The Seattle World School Teen Health Center is a school-based health center offered by the International Community Health Services in partnership with Neighborhood House. With a small onsite team, the center provides medical, dental, and behavioral health services to students.
The Seattle World School is a secondary school for newly arrived high-school age young adults. It is open to all eligible Seattle Public School students. Thirty-four languages are spoken at the school and 98% percent of Seattle World School students are immigrants or refugees navigating unique challenges as well as overcoming them.
The Teen Health Center’s impact goes beyond just having health services nearby. Staff also assist students and their families with accessing community resources like Basic Food Assistance, employment, and transportation. They assist students and their families in enrolling in health insurance and navigating the American system as new immigrants. Patient Navigators, like Mendoza and Delgado, are focused on ensuring students' wellbeing.
“The majority of our students have to work to help support their families with basic needs such as buying food,” Mendoza says. So when planning this year’s Health Care Careers Week, they provided each participant with a $500 gift card to make up for their lost income missing days of work.
There are many challenges that students navigate and overcome. Many of them will be the first in their families to attend college and navigate the confusing higher education system of financial aid. For many who grew up in countries with health systems very different from the United States, they are learning first hand which career paths are even available in healthcare.
Students met with professionals at the Seattle World School and traveled to the UW School of Nursing and Seattle Central’s Health Education Center at Pacific Medical Tower. Faculty and staff led tours of their teaching facilities, shared information on applying and what to expect, and led hands-on activities to give students a taste of the real classroom.
In addition, students spoke directly with ICHS employee guest speakers like Dr. Kacheria, the ICHS dentist at the Seattle World School Teen Health Center, and had hands-on experience with things like taking vitals with blood pressure monitors.
Delgado reflects that the addition of Movimiento Afrolatino Seattle (MAS) was a welcome addition to Healthcare Career Week. MAS executive director Milvia Berenice Pacheco Salvatierra spoke with students, and bomba and capoeira performance groups also joined in for students to take part in. “So many smiles, laughs, and feels during all those times,” Delgado says. Many students were juggling many responsibilities to take part in the program, some coming to the program after completing night-shifts at summer jobs says Delgado. Nonetheless, the students made great efforts to spend their time and energy to focus on their exploring health care careers.
“As a last-minute addition to our agenda, we decided to talk to students about Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA) and scholarship opportunities available to them,” Mendoza says. She took notice of how engaged students were — rapidly writing down notes and taking photos of every site with their phones.
Mendoza says this moment was special to her because it’s clear “how dedicated our students are in pursuing higher education and becoming the next generation of healthcare professionals” in a field that has been exclusionary and closed to students of color.
Closing the racial gap in health care
Patients of color have markedly worse health outcomes than white patients. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing health disparities in health outcomes and access to health services. Insurance status or community availability hospitals and COVID-19 testing locations have been in the spotlight during the pandemic, but one of the lingering racial disparities in the American health care system is the gap of representative health providers.
According to a 2021 study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, patients of color are significantly less likely than white patients to have a health care provider of the same race. Compared with 74% of white adults, only 22% of Black adults and 34% of adults of additional races reported being the same race as their health care providers.
The American Medical Association (AMA) says a top priority in AMA’s work to reduce health care disparities is to “increase the number of minority physicians to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population through its policies and advocacy work.”
Representative care has been found to shape patient experiences and doctor-patient relationships. Research shows that medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — which respects a person’s heritage and values — see improved patient outcomes.
“Trust is part of the foundation of good patient-provider relationships and is especially important for communities of color, who have long been discriminated against in healthcare. Having a provider who looks like you and shares your experiences builds trust,” Jacquelynn Orr, the program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement.
ICHS has been long aware of the importance of a pipeline of qualified health professionals that reflect the communities in which it serves. Beginning in 2019, the Healthcare Careers Week has been buttressed by grant funding from the Sheng Yen Lu Foundation and the Satterberg foundation.
"The development of healthcare careers training that is intentional about supporting minority students all the way through to career placement is profoundly important in paving a cogent pathway toward achieving diversity in the healthcare workforce," says Dr. Deepa Yerram, ICHS Chief Medical Officer.