Program opens doors for underrepresented students seeking careers in health care

Venture Healthcare gives access and support aimed at fostering greater diversity in health professions.

For two weeks, Samantha Roan got a behind-the-scenes look at the operations of a hospital, shadowing health-care providers.

She spent time with nurses, lab technicians, social workers, health-care administrators, physiotherapists and others, observing direct patient care, learning how a big diagnostic laboratory functions, and spending time with administrators to better understand their roles and responsibilities.

It was a different experience for the young student, who is enrolled in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Native Studies.

"This is what I want to do," said Roan, adding the experience gave her a new focus and determination in her plan to become a nurse. "That's what (these two weeks) awoke."

Roan's experience was part of Venture Healthcare-a new program introducing U of A students to careers in health care.

Venture Healthcare is the creation of Yasmin Rafiei, a Rhodes Scholar and alumna of the U of A's Faculty of Science, in collaboration with Jill Konkin, director of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Division of Community Engagement.

Through her own journey into the medical-school admissions process-Rafiei has a deferred admission at Stanford University-she came to realize not all undergraduate students have access to the same resources or opportunities to get a first-hand look at the careers in health available to them. She founded Venture Healthcare on a vision that building health equity requires diversity in the health professional workforce.

"Students from backgrounds that are currently underrepresented in health professions have often overcome significant obstacles while living in underserved communities," said Rafiei. "When we provide underrepresented students with experiential learning and mentorship opportunities and they are allowed to put their invaluable experiences into practice through meaningful work, these students may be inspired and motivated to take on an enhanced role in the health profession as advocates for health equity."

Rafiei says there are a number of health careers that are highly inaccessible for students from lower socioeconomic and from Indigenous backgrounds. "It comes down to financial capital and social capital," said Rafiei. "For a number of these students, they don't have people in their relative community who are coming home and asking them what they want to do and are able to help them do that."

The inaugural Venture Healthcare program was offered in August 2017. Participants spent two weeks learning from mentors about careers in health at the U of A and health centres across Edmonton. Students also attended daily workshops and seminars covering topics in critical thinking, team care, medical ethics and advocacy.

The goal of the program is to provide students with new life tools while fostering their interest and encouraging greater diversity in health care.

"We will be keeping in touch with the participants every year and following them," added Konkin. "They know they can come to us for guidance, or information, or whatever. The idea here is to really find a way of building connections for people who wouldn't otherwise have them."

According to Rafiei, increasing diversity in health care is a goal worth pursuing.

"I think the benefit of this is that our students are realizing that their lived experiences are ones that aren't necessarily well represented in health care," said Rafiei. "They are ones that we need and that will make our health-care system more welcoming [and inclusive]."

"A diverse health workforce improves care for excluded populations," added Konkin. "There is good evidence in the medical literature that physicians from underrepresented populations are more likely to choose careers in primary care serving populations that are underserved. There is also evidence that individuals from populations experiencing health inequities are more likely to seek care if the health professional team has members from their population."

Though the program is only in its first year, Venture Healthcare has already made an impact. U of A biological sciences student Aleefa Devji came away with a new perspective.

"I think it was really amazing to see the interconnectedness and the diversity of people in the health professions, and the way that everyone works together for the greater good of the people and the health-care system," said Devji.

"I loved it. It was amazing," added Sapphire Kroetsch, a kinesiology student with an eye on a career in physiotherapy or occupational therapy. "Honestly, there were some occupations that I didn't even know existed that are part of the health-care team. So that was really cool to see in action."

She said she's more convinced than ever that a career in occupational therapy or physiotherapy is for her.

"You learn so much and it's not just in the health-care setting," said Kroetsch. "The workshops were so crucial. I wish I had gotten them two years ago. And I really think I'll carry a lot of it through the rest of my studies and even throughout my life."