MD AIDE breaks down barriers to medical education

Free MD student-led MCAT course supports applicants from diverse backgrounds.

Shelby Soke - 9 January 2018

Medical students at the University of Alberta are trying to increase diversity in health professions by reducing obstacles to applying to medical school. The newly launched MD Admissions Initiative for Diversity & Equity (MD AIDE) will make it easier for post-secondary students from low-income and Indigenous backgrounds to prepare for the infamously difficult Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

"MCAT preparation can be a barrier to medical school," said Alexander Wong, a second-year MD student and co-lead of the initiative. "Registering for the exam itself costs a few hundred dollars and that doesn't include the cost of books and purchasing online practice questions."

There are private courses that provide tutoring for the MCAT, but they can cost upwards of thousands of dollars, which can be a financial burden. It is not just the upfront cost that is prohibitive; attending a private course is not always feasible due to the time it can take away from work.

"One of the most concerning issues in regards to medical education is when only those who can afford it can access it. Traditionally our system has always favoured those coming from higher socioeconomic background," said Emily Fong, second-year MD student and the other co-lead of MD AIDE. "We hope that this initiative can help level out some of these inequities."

This is the first year the program is offered, running from May to July of 2018. Wong says he and his U of A medical student peers wanted to build off existing initiatives to make medical education more social accountable, such as Venture Healthcare -a new health-care job shadowing program giving access and support for underrepresented students seeking careers in health care.

Wong and Fong noticed a lack of diversity in medicine and wanted to create an initiative targeted towards low-income and Indigenous post-secondary students to help produce future physicians that will best serve the needs of the population.

"We thought one way to do this is to have a physician population that fits what the actual Canadian population looks like. It's really important that we get students from backgrounds that are underrepresented and it goes towards helping achieve health equity," said Wong. "We talk about providing culturally safe care, especially for Indigenous communities, and one of the best ways that we can do this is to have care providers that come from Indigenous backgrounds."

The program is a collaboration with the Undergraduate Medical Education Office and the Indigenous Health Initiatives Office within the Division of Community Engagement, the Medical Students' Association and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The student group is also collaborating with Communities United, which is an initiative under EndPovertyEdmonton. Communities United will be providing funding for students that come from five communities in Northeast Edmonton that face systemic barriers to applying for medical school: Clareview Town Centre, Bannerman, Hairsine, Kirkness and Fraser.

The program will provide guidance and free practice questions for participants. Medical students who have already taken the test and are familiar with the format and types kind of questions will equip participants with strategies for how to answer the questions and guidelines for time management, since the exam has four sections and takes around seven hours to complete.

Participants may not have networks of family members or people they know that are in the medical profession. To help alleviate these social barriers, the program will pair each participant with a medical student or physician that comes from a similar background to provide career guidance and let him or her know what medical school is like. Wong hopes the relationship will be longitudinal and extend beyond the three-month program as a resource when participants apply to medical schools in the future.

The MD AIDE program is aiming for a cohort of 30 students and is open to post-secondary students who will be in Edmonton over the 12-week period the program runs, from May to July 2018. It will be held Monday and Thursday evenings, and will include some weekend sessions to do practice tests.

Applications to the MD AIDE program are due January 25. For information about applying, please contact The application for MD AIDE can be found here:

Update: March 14, 2019

Overall, the first cohort of the MD AIDE program was highly successful in terms of supporting Indigenous and low-SES students as they pursue their journeys into medicine. Known barriers to entry into medicine include, but are not limited to the high cost of medical admissions tests - - which was an important focus of this program.
Participants consistently indicated that without the MD AIDE program they likely would not have pursued the MD Program but that the program was vital to building confidence, essential networks among other interested students , and capacity/ skills to successfully take the MCAT.

A few key statistics from the successful implementation of the MD AIDE program:

• 93% of participants in the 1st MD AIDE cohort would recommend the program to others who are interested in applying to medical school.

• Over 1000 volunteer hours were spent planning, organizing, developing and delivering the 1st MD AIDE in 2018. Volunteers included students, faculty, staff and other community partners.

• 100% of the MD AIDE participants were interviewed upon program completion. 100% of respondents indicated that the program was an important part of a continuum of pre-entry supports and services for students who would otherwise face considerable barriers to entry into the program.

• To the question, "what has been the mos t beneficial aspect of the program?", more than 50 % of respondents to a follow-up survey indicated that the opportunity to meet others applying to medical school and the mentorship program were the most important aspect s of their experience.