The students learn how to check blood pressure and blood-sugar level. They wear hospital scrub suits when they go to the health center so residents of the neighborhood can recognize them as participants in a positive program. “I start recruiting them in the eighth grade,” Ellison said. “In the ninth grade, we get them summer jobs at local hospitals.”
Ellison, 63, who was in the children’s marches led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., says he is trying to encourage black children the way he was encouraged by black doctors in Birmingham when he was a child. He says 88 percent of the children in his program go into the health field, and more than 60 have become doctors.
“We’re trying to reach them while they’re young and show them the value of hard study,” Ellison said. “We want to make it real for them, show them how they can have a medical career that starts them off at $21 an hour, or become a technician making $40 an hour.”
If they do want to become physicians, Ellison might help them get a free medical education in Cuba. He works with the State Department to take dozens of students to Cuba, which he visits several times a year.
Ellison says the medical training at the University of Havana is in some respects better than what U.S. medical schools provide, in particular when it comes to becoming a family practitioner. Despite Cuba’s poverty, its infant mortality rate and life expectancy are comparable to those in the United States.
Of course, no individual, not even one as motivated as Ellison, can resolve the looming physician shortage alone. In fact, the AAMC says the number of enrollees in U.S. medical schools reached an all-time high of 19,517 last year, including a 3 percent increase in black medical students and a 6 percent increase in Hispanic students. But it’s not enough.
A major impediment is a cap on federally funded medical residencies that Congress imposed in 1997. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, D-Pa., is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., that would add 15,000 graduate medical education slots over five years, but with Congress more focused on budget cutting than new spending, its fate is uncertain.
Here’s hoping the bipartisanship approach Schwartz and Schock are taking prevails. Critics have spent too much time fighting the Affordable Care Act, instead of admitting that — like any legislation, even the Constitution — it’s not perfect but can be fixed. With Obamacare adding 32 million to the ranks of the medically insured, it’s time to ensure that there are enough doctors to handle their cases.
Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.