Apodaca: The solution to doctor shortage is students

Medical industry sources estimate that the United States faces a potential shortage of 150,000 doctors in the next 15 years. If true, that unwelcome proposition makes it more important than ever to encourage today's youth to pursue an education in medicine.

But how do we spark their interest?

A few years ago, Dr. Behnoosh Afghani had an idea. The UC Irvine pediatrics professor wanted to find a way to expose high school students to the medical school experience.

Her thinking wasn't entirely new. Plenty of colleges offer health-care themed programs for younger students.

But Afghani wanted to take the concept a step further by immersing the teenagers in realistic, hands-on training that might serve to whet their appetites for more.

Thus, the UCI School of Medicine's Summer Pre-med Program was born, and it's proving to be a stunning success and a model that other universities would do well to emulate.

In its first year, in 2010, 30 students attended the two-week program. This summer, 140 high school kids took part over two sessions. Demand was so great that many applicants had to be turned away.

What makes UCI's program for teens so special?

The difference is the insistence by Afghani and teams from various campus organizations that helped plan the curriculum that the participants learn about the medical field, not just through lectures and watching others perform procedures. They wanted to fully engage the kids by giving them a taste of the same type of training that medical students undergo.

"Why are they studying physics or chemistry?" Afghani said. "We do projects on diabetes and different diseases. They learn about how what they learn in school applies, and it motivates them."

I visited one morning recently when the kids were in the university's Medical Education Simulation Center, a state-of-the-art facility that uses life-size, computer-controlled mannequins as stand-ins for real patients. The teenagers, dressed in white lab coats and assisted by pre-med and medical students, gathered in groups to learn how to perform various procedures.

At one station, the kids performed intubations, which involved inserting plastic breathing tubes into the throats of "patients" that had stopped breathing. Cheers and high-fives broke out when one boy, after several failed attempts, successfully intubated his patient under the time limit.

I recognized one of the students, 17-year-old Olivia Dajee, a Corona del Mar High School senior who I've known since she was in kindergarten.

I asked Olivia if she saved her patient.

"Yeah," she laughed. "After the third time."

Nearby, other students watched raptly as they were taught how to insert a catheter into the jugular vein.

Using an ultrasound image as a guide, the instructor patiently explained, "Now find your vein. Grab the needle."

If the aspirated blood is blue, they've found the vein, she said; red means they've hit the carotid artery and have to try again.

The most sophisticated and interactive station resembled a typical emergency room. A computer-controlled mannequin lay on a gurney, appearing to breathe and exhibit a heartbeat. It even "spoke" to the students through an electronic device controlled by a worker in an adjacent room. A monitor displayed the virtual patient's vital signs.

The students were tasked with diagnosing their simulated patient, a middle-aged man with breathing problems.

They used their stethoscopes to check the heart rate.

"It's really slow," said one student.

Then the kids asked pertinent questions about their patient's health history, previous breathing issues, medications, allergies and additional risk factors.

Afghani pointed out that the monitor showed that the patient's blood pressure was high.

"What do you want to do about that?" she asked.

The students decided to order a chest X-rayand administer medication to alleviate the symptoms. Another group later faced a different set of symptoms that led them to a diagnosis of a heart attack.

The students all appeared so engaged and animated; I hardly needed to ask what they thought of the program.

"It's given me so much exposure," said Kylie Mulvaney, 17, a CdM senior who wants to be a pediatrician.

She said she was particularly looking forward to the group's impending visit to the medical school's cadaver lab. "I'm really excited about that."

Another CdM student, sophomore Ryan Farhat, 15, said his favorite activity had been learning to suture a pig's foot — "It's harder than it looks," he said — and found that he's grown increasingly interested in trauma and surgery.

Kimaya Gokhale, a 15-year-old Sage Hill School sophomore, said the UCI program has "helped confirm that I want to be a doctor," and kindled her interest in radiology.

I also met one of the undergraduate helpers, Amanda Bastien, a former CdM student who now studies neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University. A few years ago, she was one of the program's first participants.

"Because I did the program, I knew that becoming a doctor is worth it," she said.

That's just the type of response that Afghani was aiming for.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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