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$3.8M grant will pay full tuition for underrepresented students at Greenville med school

GREENVILLE — Twenty-one South Carolina students who identify with groups underrepresented in Greenville's only medical school will have an opportunity over the next 10 years to attend for free.

The University of South Carolina's School of Medicine in Greenville, which enrolls about 100 students annually at its campus on the downtown grounds of Prisma Health, has received a $3.8 million BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation grant that will pay the annual tuition in full, $45,000, for these students.

The state's largest private insurer has supported scholarships at the Greenville campus since the school's opening in 2012, but this 10-year commitment to the Levi S. Kirkland Scholars program, named for the Greenville Health System's first Black surgeon, is the longest in the foundation's history, according to an announcement about the scholarships.

It is part of a larger strategy to expand representation in the medical field equally across demographic groups. While an effort to help correct historic disparities, the investment is also good medicine: Studies show patients are far more likely to seek care from individuals who look like themselves.

The Greenville school's dean, Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, said disparities between the general population and in her medical school are most apparent among students who identify as Black, Latino, rural or socio-economically disadvantaged. This can include individuals, for instance, who are the first in their families to attend college, she said. This past year, the school's incoming class drew 24 percent of its students from underrepresented groups and will have a historic high of 26 percent next year.

"That's quite an increase in percentage for a school," Jenkins said. "People might wonder how that occurs, but really it takes a lot of intentionality. You have to think diversity first. It doesn't just happen by chance."

University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville

The sun rises Thursday, April 29, 2021, over the University of South Carolina School of Medicine building in Greenville. The school recently announced it would be supporting 21 underrepresented students with full scholarships over the next 10 years through the Levi S. Kirkland Scholars program. Kirkland scholarships are funded through private gifts and the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, which this week announced it would commit $3.8 million to the program through 2031. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

Promoting diversity of thought and life experience, she said, makes the learning environment more invigorating in the school's classrooms but also benefits a profession where studies show patients are more satisfied with, and better persuaded by, doctors who share similar life experiences. 

The USC medical school in Greenville has graduated more than 400 students in its nine-year history, Jenkins said.

Dillon Isaac, a Black medical student from Blackville who will graduate next week from the school, said he was on a Zoom call recently with extended members of his family answering questions about the coronavirus vaccine. They have all been vaccinated, he said.

He said they trusted him and asked a range of questions about the technology of mRNA-based vaccines and their safety. He said that he has also, with help from a Black primary care physician back home, been able to counsel his father on adhering to his blood pressure and diabetes medications.

"I think that's a direct representation of having a physician that looks like you and would empathize with you a little more closely," Isaac said.

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Isaac worked hard to get into medical school, graduating with a 3.7 GPA from Claflin University, getting the entrance test scores that landed him an interview, and applying twice to get into the program in Greenville. Standardized tests, including the MCAT entrance exam for medical schools, traditionally do not favor minority groups, he said. That and the lack of Black role models in medicine — just 3 percent of the profession in the U.S. despite a population that is 13 percent Black — are behind the profession's demographic disparities, he said.

"I think it's a combination of those institutionalized and even those personalized factors such as lack of representation," Isaac said.

University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville

The USC School of Medicine in Greenville has received a $3.8 million BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation grant that will pay the annual tuition in full, $45,000, for 21 students. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

Getting into the Greenville school is grueling enough, with 110 at most accepted out of roughly 4,000 applications that come in every year. Paying for it, Jenkins said, then becomes a barrier that often pushes debt-ridden students away from less lucrative fields of medicine such as primary care. Medical school students face an additional three to six years of advanced training, also known as residency, after they graduate.

"South Carolina is predicted to have 700 less primary care physicians than they need by 2025 and 800 less by 2030," Jenkins said. "That is quite a shortage."

Between the financial boost and the in-state practice requirement, the scholarship's designers hope the state will also make some progress toward filling that gap between the supply of primary care physicians and the state's growing demand.

Total payout to each student will be about $180,000. The average debt of a medical student in the United States is about $200,000, Jenkins said, so the scholarship is significant. Those chosen for the Levi S. Kirkland Sr. MD Scholarship will also be required to practice medicine in South Carolina for at least four years upon graduation. 

"We know statistically that if a student comes to an in-state medical school and stays in the state for residency, there's a 76 percent chance they will stay here to practice," Jenkins said.

The Kirkland Scholars program has done a couple of things for him, Isaac said. It connected him with Black mentors who helped him navigate and finish medical school, something no one in his extended family could provide. It also left him with a quarter of the debt upon graduation that he might otherwise face.

Isaac will start a residency at Prisma Health in Greenville this summer in internal medicine and pediatrics.

"I love Greenville," he said. " I might eventually go outside South Carolina for a fellowship, but I think long term, the goal is to definitely practice in South Carolina."

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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