< News | Tuesday, February 20, 2024

U of T prof aims to inspire diversity in health care through mentorship and social media

Onye Nnorom News Overlay
Onye Nnorom is an assistant professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s department of family and community medicine, and at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. (photo by Ashiqur Rahman Rean)

Onye Nnorom says a significant hurdle to entering the health-care profession for students from underrepresented communities is often the absence of a family member or other mentor  already in the field – someone who can provide encouragement and advice.

It’s a gap that she’s now aiming to bridge using the power of social media.

“What I realized is that I can be an auntie to people who are interested in medicine or health careers,” says Nnorom, an assistant professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s department of family and community medicine and at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Nnorom is launching a series of Instagram Live sessions that aims to encourage teen and young adults from underrepresented backgrounds to consider a career in medicine or other health professions. It’s part of an outreach effort called Healthcaring Differently, which will also include career information for first-year medical students.

Nnorom, who is also the co-lead of the Black Health Education Collaborative, recently spoke with writer Gabrielle Giroday about the inspiration behind the initiative and what she hopes it will ultimately achieve.

How will the initiative work?

Healthcaring Differently is social media outreach that encourages young people from diverse backgrounds to consider careers in medicine and health care.

It comprises two parts. One is Instagram Live sessions – every Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST, starting Feb. 20 – that feature health-care experts talking about their careers, including both physicians and other health leaders who are nurses or researchers. The spring series will go from February to April, and then there will be another series this fall. We’re at @healthcaringdifferently.

The second component will be a newsletter, where people who are interested can get more information about diversity pathways in medical schools and other health professional schools, scholarship information and jobs or research opportunities.

Who is your target audience, and why? 

One thing I realized when I was in medical school was that a lot of people had a parent or family member to ask for guidance, or other mentors in their life. That person provides a lot of information around how to think like a physician, how to prepare for the MCAT or how to obtain research opportunities. That helps a person get into medical school and thrive once they’re there. 

But not everyone has a family member or mentor in medicine. What I realized is that I can be an auntie to people who are interested in medicine or health careers. 

I can be your auntie, I can come to the table – the Instagram table – and I can bring the biscuits and spill some tea, and bring my diverse friends with me.

There’s three key groups I am hoping to reach with this initiative. One is high school students – who might not even be thinking about medicine or health care as a career – to plant the seed of an idea. The second key group are young people in college, or in their undergraduate studies, who are thinking about medicine but don’t know about the resources available to them. 

Lastly, I also want to reach first-year medical students because it can be such a jarring time for people. I spoke to first-year students and they told me when they were trying to get into medical school, they thought that was the top of the mountain. But, once they made it in, they realized there are three more mountains: CARMS (Canadian Resident Matching Service), your fellowship and your career beyond that. So, it can just feel very daunting.

I am hoping this initiative will help support first-year students and help them think about different specialties in medicine and different ways of approaching health care.  

What inspired this initiative?

Healthcaring Differently is an initiative, or a movement, to encourage my colleagues – those who are diverse and under-represented in medicine – to mentor out loud. Personally, in my life right now, I am trying to live out loud and share more about my life so that people can see a Black female doctor who is in Canada being an advocate. 

So many of my friends are so talented and doing amazing work in health care, and deserve more attention. I also want more young people to be aware of all the pathways that exist into medicine and careers in health care. 

Why is the timing of this initiative important?

It’s a critical time in health care right now. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been massive burnout for health-care workers. 

The pandemic also showed us that there are so many groups that are not being adequately served by our health-care system. 

In my work, in my advocacy, I already knew this – I have been doing Black health advocacy work for a decade. But the COVID-19 pandemic really brought a greater public awareness that our health-care system needs to change if we want diverse communities to be well. 

The other thing that I noticed is that for a lot of my friends and my colleagues, despite the challenges in health care, they’re still doing all this really cool and innovative work in the community, with Indigenous communities, Black communities and LGBTQ+ communities. 

However, young people weren’t always seeing this, especially people who are part of under-represented or diverse groups. They weren’t seeing the magic. So I asked myself, “How can I help to bridge this?” And I decided it’s a great time to boost inspiration about the fantastic work my colleagues are doing.

There’s also another element. After the tragedy of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting activism, a lot of medical schools and professional health schools developed more diversity pathways – in particular pathways for Black and Indigenous students, as well as other diverse groups, across the country.

For example, Ike Okafor, founder and strategic lead of access and outreach at Temerty Medicine’s Office of Access and Outreach, has helped make tremendous strides with programs like Community of Support, which has been implemented at other Canadian medical schools. 

But, a lot of people don’t know about these pathways, especially in other provinces. So, this initiative can highlight the fantastic work my friends are doing beyond Ontario and make their work more visible. To that end, I am also planning a newsletter to let people know about these opportunities.

What is your hope for this initiative?

For people who come from marginalized communities, you will hear us say this: You need to see it to know that you can be it. 

And for me – there has been a lot of learning, too – I am working with 21-year-old student Mathushan Ambida, who is helping with social media. 

My hope is that this through this initiative we can harness the power of social media to expose young people to all of the diverse and creative ways that I and my colleagues approach health care. 

That way, people who have an interest can be connected to a pathway program to pursue medicine or nursing, or whatever heath field they are curious about.

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