Para La Gente

By Jessica Salopek Photo by Dekker/Perich/Sabatini

As the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine heads into its second year of classes, the future of healthcare in the Southwest is already looking bright. 

At the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM), the newest medical school in the Southwestern region of the United States, they take their motto to heart. When the students, staff, and faculty say, “para la gente y el futuro”—for the people and the future—they really mean it. 

Carlos Yeelot, a second year medical student who eventually hopes to practice emergency medicine, says it was that exact motto that drew him to the school. “I decided to come to BCOM because, for me, medicine is para la gente,” he explains. “I wanted to be part of a new school and begin writing a story in the region that saw me grow. I was born and raised in the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez area. Having this bi-national background helps me connect with the people of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. This allows me to understand the challenges that our people face and lets my patients know that I am one of them.”

Students like Carlos are exactly who Founding Dean Dr. George Mychaskiw II, DO, had in mind when he first conceived of a medical school in Las Cruces. The federal government has deemed El Paso County and all but two of the 33 counties in New Mexico as Health Professional Shortage Areas. BCOM not only aims to increase the number of practicing physicians, it is also focused on diversifying the physician workforce so it better resembles the Native American and Hispanic demographic in the region. 

Mychaskiw says that being an osteopathic physician is more than ordering tests and prescribing medication; it’s about treating patients as a whole and taking into account lifestyle and cultural-related factors, like diet for example. Physicians that come from a particular culture or community, are naturally more likely to be invested in that community, and will have a better understanding of the cultural nuances and barriers that may come into play in the doctor-patient relationship. 

Thus, BCOM is actively engaged in recruiting students from the Southwestern region of the United States through programs like the BEAR Pathway which expedites admission for residents of New Mexico, El Paso, southern Arizona, or any federally recognized American Indian tribal nation. Almost 20 percent of the students admitted the first year were from or already living in New Mexico or El Paso. Thirty-six new local students are already confirmed to begin in the 2017-18 school year, and that number will continue to rise as acceptances come in throughout the summer. 

To keep the momentum going in the years to come, BCOM has launched numerous community outreach programs and events to get area elementary, middle, and high school students interested in medical careers. Other programs are targeting prospective medical school applicants living in the area. This spring, 70 college students travelled to the BCOM campus two to three times a week from El Paso, Hatch, Raton, and other nearby communities to take advantage of Dr. Samuel Kadavakollu’s Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) prep course. The admissions office is also working with premedical advisors at all the colleges and universities in the region to draw in more local applicants.  

Once admitted, students are required to take courses focused on medical Spanish and Native American healing practices, to help future physicians from all backgrounds gain a better understanding of the patients they will be treating in the Southwest. “These implementations in the curriculum give us more tools as students to understand and make our patients feel more identified with us as health care providers,” Yeelot says. 

Hugo Gonzalez, another student in the class of 2020, says that, having grown up in this region, he has personally noticed a cultural disconnect between doctors and the populations they serve. He’s also seen BCOM step up to change that. “It is one thing to teach cultural competency in theory, but another thing entirely to send us out into the community to learn it firsthand,” he explains. “BCOM has done an amazing job of this by sending us out to shadow healthcare workers. I was given shadowing opportunities in three different fields of medicine. I was able to see how the health care professionals implemented cultural competency into their practice and made it part of their approach to healthcare.”  

Other students are also embracing the school’s message and making plans to improve healthcare for their fellow community members. Mariah Maestas, who hails from Espanola, New Mexico, is already looking in to how osteopathic medicine can help with the high rates of prescription drug abuse in the state. 

“If more people can be treated using osteopathic manipulative medicine, this could lead to fewer prescription drugs available for abuse,” she explains. “An issue I would like to address in the future is creating support programs for families dealing with substance abuse. I think that we often forget that addicts have families that are offered little to no emotional/mental support. My hope is to create programs that offer support and education to families that may have no one or nowhere to turn.”

El Paso native Marlina Ponce de Leon also sees herself putting the knowledge she’s learning at BCOM back to use in the town she calls home. “As a local who wants to and has the opportunity to practice medicine, I believe it is my obligation to serve my community and improve healthcare,” she said. “We are a very diverse group of students in sex, age, origin, culture, socioeconomic levels, and philosophies. BCOM has also recruited faculty that is supportive of both us going into the community and the community coming to us, so that we can learn and be accepting of the different cultural backgrounds that we will be encountering as future physicians.” 

As the class of 2020 heads into its second year, Maestas says that if year one is any indication, even many of the students that hail from other parts of the country, may end up calling this region home permanently. “They have been embraced their immersion into New Mexican culture, from learning about Native American culture to finding they will be hard pressed to order any food in the area that doesn’t come with green chile,” she says. “My fellow classmates genuinely care about this region of the country.”

Summer 2017

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