By Cory Phare
Jose Parra Gonzalez works with patients who have stage 4 cancer. The 2016 graduate who majored in biology and minored in chemistry is now a professional research assistant and clinical coordinator, advancing knowledge that may one day improve end-of-life care delivery – and serve as impeccable medical school application material.
For Gonzalez, though, it’s personal.
“I’ve lost family to cancer,” he said. “The molecular biology and cancer-related coursework I took at MSU Denver reaffirmed my decision to study oncology and help others.”
And when it came to making the jump to this career-defining work, he credited a unique partnership that helped him tie it all together.
“Before I got involved with the Healthcare Interest Program (HIP), I didn’t know how I was going to get into the health care field,” Gonzalez said.
“I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”
Launched in 2009, HIP is an effort within Denver Health designed to help students from underrepresented populations thrive in healthcare fields. Through a series of hands-on educational programs, participants gain access to clinical experience, career preparation and targeted curricula to tailor graduate school applications. And, paired with supportive mentors, students have an advocate to help them at each step along the way.
In addition to guidance, HIP can also provide another vital item: a route into health-related jobs.
That’s especially important for students like Gonzalez, who recalled how the program helped transition him from working as a server at a restaurant into a pharmacy technician, which laid the foundation for his current role with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“Our students are working so many hours, balancing so many other demands, how can we support them so they perform well in rigorous science programs? How can we say ‘yes, you belong in a field like health care?’” asked Emily Matuszewicz, D.C., chair of the Department of Health Professions.
When it comes to belonging, not all opportunities are created equal. A study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Health Resources Service Administration indicated patients receive better care from practitioners with a shared racial or ethnic background, yet a shortage of physicians from underrepresented populations has led to a disproportionate number of medical practitioners available to serve them.
“There’s a huge gap in representation for disadvantaged groups because of the lack of mentors, access to clinical experiences and financial barriers to things like [standardized test] preparation,” said Lilia Cervantes, M.D., associate professor in the department of medicine at Denver Health and founder/director of HIP. “A lot of students struggle to find a mentor in the health care field because they’re starting at the other end of the spectrum.”
The gap she described is also between a vision of one’s self as a provider and how to get accepted into a health care graduate program. Not needing to choose between volunteer clinical experience for a competitive application or working to keep the lights on at home is a luxury not afforded to everybody.
That’s exactly the disparity HIP aims to address.
Just this past summer, Denver Health launched a phlebotomy program with the sole purpose of training HIP students for free. And as six of the program’s students who took part are now working phlebotomists, it’s a shot in the arm for expanding access into the field.
“We want to say, ‘Let’s get you that experience as a pharmacy tech so you can be a strong candidate for your medical school application,’” said Matuszewicz. “Wherever you go, there are MSU Denver students working hard to make ends meet and get ahead. Partnering [with a program like this] is a natural fit.”
That concept of “fit” extends far beyond the superficial. It speaks to the core mission-driven ideals of access and service found within both organizations.
“The population MSU Denver caters to is the population we want to serve, too,” said MariaFrancisca Zabalaga, manager of the HIP – and 2012 biology graduate with a minor in Spanish.
“That’s what we do – we help our communities. And as a Roadrunner myself, knowing the challenges people face makes me want to support the amazing potential others often overlook.”
Connecting with individuals via a shared background often has a cascading effect, catalyzing change on down the line. One way this happens is by having health care providers who look like the patients they serve, Zabalaga said.
It only makes sense, then, to work with a University that's in the business of transformation.
“MSU Denver is an ideal partner because of the rich diversity of the population and commitment to efforts like supporting DACA students. This is the community that Denver Health supports, too,” said Cervantes. “I’m Latina; I’ve faced issues like homelessness and food insecurity, so I strive to help others from a similar background.
“Also, I was born at Denver Health – so in a way I’ve come full-circle.”
For Gonzalez, it loops back to this element of applied expertise within the context of connection.
“When you’re there for [training] rounds, you’re talking with the residents and people being treated; you pick up on the medical terminology and the way it’s explained to people,” he said. “The the doctor-patient interaction is crucial – so many just don’t get to see that, and it matters so much.”
The benefit goes beyond the clinical experiences for Gonzalez, however. He described how the connection with his own mentor, Jeffrey Zoucha, M.D., continues to this day: The pair regularly meet up for lunch and conversation – and soon, as a guest at Gonzalez’s upcoming wedding.
That’s just the community- and life-changing impact the doctor ordered.
“This is a program for any student who wants to be in the health care field, and the relationships don’t just stop when it formally ends,” Gonzalez said. “Whatever effort you put into it, you’ll get back – and so much more.”
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