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Setting Intentions and Creating Solutions

Photo of Jeremiah Wittington smiling into the camera. He is wearing a black blazer and blue tie and glasses

“I’ve worked to inspire, mentor, and support aspiring underrepresented minority students on their journeys to becoming health care professionals, too.”

Jeremiah Whittington, a fourth-year student at University of Illinois College of Medicine (UI COM), is the recipient of the Dr. Prentiss Taylor Scholarship. He is also one of four Black men in his class of 180, which underscores the need for NMF interventions such as scholarships, service-learning programs, and mentorship.

“It’s alarming that more Black men attended medical school in the ‘70s than now,” he said, referring to a 2021 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine stating the number of Black male medical students in 2019 had decreased from the number in 1978.

That statistic is unacceptable to Whittington, who now devotes much of his academic and professional career – as well as his research for National Medical Fellowships’ Health Equity Leaders Program – to answering one question:

“How can I make sure patients like me are adequately represented within future generations of physicians?”

Whittington grew up in Harvey, Illinois, where the per capita income is $23,472 and less than 11% of residents have a bachelor’s degree.

“I attended some of the lowest performing schools in Illinois,” he said. “So even though we were of lower socioeconomic status, my mom focused on our education at home while my dad worked as an alderman.

“I credit my upbringing for where I am today because my two siblings and I were some of the only kids in our neighborhood with two parents at home to guide, teach, and provide for us.”

A pre-dental club at his high school also played a key role.

“That’s how I learned exposure to certain careers can help sway students,” he said.

Whittington attended the University of Michigan with the idea of becoming a dentist, but as a bio-molecular science major, he struggled with the academic rigor.

“I sought out the help I needed to stay and graduate from the highly selective school,” he said.

In the little time he had to decompress, Whittington said he enjoyed watching episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Shonda Rhimes created a television show about medicine in which there was actually Black representation,” he said.

When it inspired Whittington to learn more about other health care opportunities, Whittington said his father called upon old friends.

“My dad had been in one of the first Black fraternities, so I got to shadow his brothers who had become physicians,” he said. Intrigued by the idea, Whittington earned his master’s degree in physiology from Georgetown University and ultimately decided to attend UI COM.

“One of the biggest challenges we face right now in health care is that only 3 to 5% of physicians are from underrepresented backgrounds.”

“Through collaborations with pre-medical organizations, community outreach programs, local schools and hospitals, I’ve worked to inspire, mentor, and support aspiring underrepresented minority students on their journeys to becoming health care professionals, too.”

As pipeline chair for the Student National Medical Association at UI COM, Whittington pushed initiatives to admissions that would highlight applicants who would improve diversity in the physician pipeline.

As a Health Equity Fellow at Sinai Chicago Hospital System, he also researched and recommended initiatives to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in residencies.

“Because Sinai Chicago is one of the first hospital systems that wanted to focus on medically underserved and under-resourced minority populations, it’s a challenging and underfunded clinical environment providing the best care it can with limited resources,” Whittington said.

“They need residents and physicians who not only look like the patients the hospital system serves but also share similar values with them.”

One of the biggest recruitment and retention strategies Whittington was able to help implement for Sinai Chicago was student loan forgiveness.

“I myself have mountains of student loan debt and if I compare it with those of the friends who don’t look like me, their loans are usually half that. This puts Black and brown communities even further back in our abilities to build wealth and give back.”

Whittington decided then to co-create and co-host “Money with Jen & Jer,” a podcast dedicated to increasing financial literacy within lower-income communities to help bridge the wealth gap.

“I saw a call to action to help educate our patient populations on the basics of adequate budgeting and managing debt,” he said. “Basic financial literacy is a huge hurdle to overcome for those of lower socioeconomic status living in underserved areas with unstable housing and employment opportunities.”

Finally, Whittington has been working with the Young Doctors Club, a K-12 health professions pipeline program in Chicago, to complete his research as a Health Equity Leader with NMF.

“I developed a health science curriculum for underrepresented minority students and have been collecting qualitative data via focus groups and student surveys throughout the program to see how motivating and effective it is in fostering strong and comprehensive career pathways to health care,” he said.

The curriculum includes weekly scientific enrichment, community service projects, leadership skills, and academic topics such as anatomy, diseases, and case studies – all taught at the medical school level.

“These students aren’t coming from the best schools, but we find that when we teach them at a higher level, they rise to the challenge,” he said.

Mentorship is also a critical component, Whittington added.

“We bring in doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, and even professionals from other fields so students can see and hear people who look like them talk about what they went through and how they, too, can overcome similar challenges.”

“We hope this intervention will persuade them to become a health professional in any capacity.”

Whittington said his research will take at least a decade to analyze. In the meantime, he continues to become the best health care provider and community leader he can be via self-improvement.

“I have a stutter, and as someone who needs to speak in public and with patients, I must be able to communicate clearly and effectively,” he said. “That’s why I joined Toastmasters International – to hone my public speaking and leadership skills.”

He also is awaiting decisions from family medicine residency programs.

“Mentors of mine were great clinical physicians that also shared really strong bonds and made measurable impacts within the communities they served, and family medicine aligns with those values,” Whittington said. “I also love getting to see patients over long periods of time because I feel we can make more social strides that way.”

Whatever the future holds, Whittington isn’t waiting to give back. “I co-created two annual cash scholarships to help under-resourced high school students transition to college.”

“National Medical Fellowships helped me through some really tough times and no matter what resources I currently have, I still feel I, too, can make a difference by giving back what I can.”