Why an HBCU Med School Decided to Put CARES Act Money Into Students’ Pockets

Why an HBCU Med School Decided to Put CARES Act Money Into Students’ Pockets

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just before students at Meharry Medical College went home for Thanksgiving, Dr. James Hildreth, the school’s president, emailed them a video message that he acknowledged seemed hard to believe. Or at least they had to give it a second listen.

“We’ll gift each of you $10,000 in cash,” he said, looking at the camera. “You heard me right.”

They were told to expect a direct deposit the next day or pick up a check in person. Hildreth, an expert in infectious diseases who helped lead Nashville’s pandemic response, explained that this gift with no strings attached was money from the CARES Act, a major covid-19 relief law passed by Congress in 2020. He asked only that they be “good stewards” of the windfall.

After deep consideration, Meharry’s administration decided to give roughly a third of its CARES Act funding — $10 million — directly to its future doctors, dentists and public health researchers. All told, 956 students received payments.

Meharry’s students had already been heavily involved in the pandemic response, staffing Nashville’s mass covid testing and vaccination sites. But the money isn’t so much surprise compensation for volunteer efforts as it is an investment in a future career — and an assist in overcoming financial hurdles Black students especially face to become medical professionals.

While Black Americans make up roughly 13% of the population, the Association of American Medical Colleges finds Black doctors account for just 5% of the nation’s working physicians — a figure that has grown slowly over more than a century. And studies have found that Black patients often want to be cared for by someone whom they consider culturally competent in acknowledging their heritage, beliefs and values during treatment.

Meharry graduates more Black physicians than almost any other U.S. school. And half of its M.D.s enter the high-demand but lower-paying specialty of primary care.

“We felt that there was no better way to begin distributing these funds than by giving to our students who will soon give so much to our world,” Hildreth said.

Cheers erupted in the library as students clicked the video link.

Andreas Nelson fell silent, he recalled later. He went to his banking app and stared in disbelief. “$10,000 was sitting just in my bank account. It was astonishing,” he said. “I was literally lost for words.”

The Chicago native is finishing a master’s degree in health and science at Meharry with hopes of entering its dental school. The average student loan debt in the program totals more than $280,000. So, undoubtedly, 10 grand won’t make much of a dent in the debt.

But the money in his pocket eases his top concern of making rent each month. Nelson said it feels as though he’s being treated like an adult, allowing him to decide what his greatest needs are in getting through school.

“It’s motivating,” Nelson said. “Because that means they have trust in us to do with this money whatever the cause may be — whether it be student debt, investing or just personal enjoyment.”

Across the board, students at HBCUs rely more on student loans than students at historically white institutions. Roughly 80% take out student loans, according to an analysis by UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, and they borrow considerably more.

Meharry was founded a decade after the Civil War to help those who had been enslaved. But the 145-year-old institution has always struggled financially, and so have its students.

The reasons are rooted in the country’s racist past, which has left the institutions with less money potentially available for scholarships than other universities. And students’ families generally have less wealth to tap into since Black households across the country have averaged around $17,000 in net worth — about a tenth of the average for white families.

Meharry’s average student debt is far higher than other area schools of medicine at Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee, representing both private and public institutions.

Virtually all colleges and universities received allotments under the CARES Act, but HBCUs have been much more aggressive about funneling substantial amounts directly to students, who tend to have greater need. More than 20 HBCUs have erased outstanding tuition balances. Some have canceled student fees.

But Meharry, one of the few stand-alone HBCU graduate schools, is a rare case in cutting checks for students.

“These young people are rising to medical school against all odds,” said Lodriguez Murray, who leads public policy and government affairs at UNCF. “Of course, they have to borrow more because people who look like them have less.”

During the pandemic, major philanthropists have taken new interest in supporting the few HBCU medical schools. Michael Bloomberg committed $100 million to four institutions, including Meharry, to help educate more Black doctors.

Students at Meharry can now apply for $100,000 scholarships. The $34 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies is also going toward other kinds of financial support.

The school is now offering, for no additional fee, expensive test-prep services through a Boston-based company, MedSchoolCoach. The service, which entails paying a doctor by the hour to help with studying, can cost thousands of dollars.

While the price is often out of reach for students tight on cash, acing the benchmark exams toward board licensure is key to landing coveted fellowships, qualifying for lucrative specialties or just finishing on time. And Meharry’s four-year completion rate of roughly 70% is below most schools. The most up-to-date national average is around 82%.

For some, Murray said, a $10,000 windfall may make all the difference in whether they cross the finish line and become a doctor who can afford all their medical school debt.

“Many of those students are borrowing a lot of money to complete their dream, and to become relatively high earners in the future,” Murray said. “The fact that these students are largely coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds means that the funds that Meharry turned around and gave to the students are particularly impactful.”

This story is from a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio and KHN.

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On A Mission To Help People Control Diabetes — And Save Money On Insulin

On A Mission To Help People Control Diabetes — And Save Money On Insulin


RELATED LINK: Rhymes Of Their Times: Young Poets Riff On Type 2

In a former church parsonage in Grundy County, Tenn., Karen Wickham ladled out her lentil stew as people arrived for an evening health education class.

Wickham and her husband, Steve, are white-haired, semi-retired nurses who have dedicated the last years of their working lives to helping people with Type 2 diabetes control and even reverse the condition with diet and exercise.

Wendy Norris is in the group, and she has brought along her father and daughter. Since her diagnosis several years ago, Norris said, her doctor prescribed insulin shots and told her to watch what she ate.

She recalled thinking at the time, “Well, what does that mean?”

The Wickhams have set out to answer that question in Tennessee’s Grundy County, which ranks lowest on the scale of residents’ health. Grundy’s population of 13,000 has the shortest life expectancy in the state and an elevated rate of diabetes (16% of adults), which can eventually result in blindness, kidney failure or amputations.

Norris said trying to overhaul her diet by herself was confusing and difficult. And when things didn’t change, the doctor just kept increasing her dosage of insulin.

But then Norris lost her health insurance. The injectable insulin cost her hundreds of dollars a month — money she simply didn’t have.

“I felt like I was stuck having to take three or four shots a day [for] the rest of my life,” she said. She enrolled in one of the six-week seminars the Wickhams offer and is seeing results in how many shots she needs: “I’ve got it down to one already.”

With slide presentations, the Wickhams explain the difference between sucrose and glucose, and the science behind the fact that certain foods, like potatoes, spike blood sugar, while sweet potatoes don’t. They preach eating as much fiber as a stomach can stand, and dropping almost every kind of sweetened beverage.

Steve and Karen Wickham explain course materials to participants in their seminar on Type 2 diabetes in Grundy County, Tenn. The six-week seminar offers detailed instruction on the biology of diabetes, diet, and exercise — and provides plenty of individualized support.

And they demonstrate ways to burn all those calories. Steve even invented the “Beersheba Boogie” — after the Grundy town of Beersheba Springs — asking participants to raise their knees and pump their fists while marching in place.

Video Courtesy of  mnhealth

Support For Hard Changes

All the workshop participants have to find a way to get active at home or in a rugged state park nearby because there’s no gym anywhere in the county. There’s not a proper grocery store anywhere nearby either, so healthy cooking can become a real chore.

These communitywide obstacles reveal why it can be a struggle for people to maintain their health in rural America. But the Wickhams are working to overcome those barriers.

During one education session, as participants shared their latest health stats, Steve called out: “Her blood sugar is going down! Give her a hand.”

If it sounds like a revival meeting, it kind of is. Steve and Karen Wickham say they are compelled in this work by their Christian faith as Seventh-day Adventists — a denomination known for a focus on health. They first moved to Grundy County to take care of ailing parents, and once settled in their scenic mountain retreat, they grew disturbed by the suffering they saw in their neighbors.

“I think God holds us responsible for living in the middle of this people and doing nothing,” Steve Wickham said.

Many people think of Type 2 diabetes as practically incurable, though it has long been known that the condition can be reversed with weight loss and exercise. But research shows people need lots of help to change their lifestyle, and they rarely get it.

“I had taken care of diabetic patients for so long, and I knew the progression,” Karen said. “If you truly want the people to get better, you have to treat it with lifestyle interventions.”

Those changes can be hard to start and even harder to maintain.

“Nobody, actually, will make all of the lifestyle changes that we recommend,” Steve said. “But if you’re making the kind of choices that lead you to a healthier lifestyle, then you get better.”

A More Hopeful Message

Along with their lifestyle counseling, the Wickhams always give a disclaimer, advising people to consult with their doctors. They also acknowledge that their seminars are not yet “evidence-based” or backed by peer-reviewed scientific literature.

But there are studies showing that people with blood sugar levels in the “prediabetes” range can get back to normal blood sugar by losing 5% of their body weight.

And weight loss and exercise have already been shown to lower hemoglobin A1c levels, a test physicians use to monitor a patient’s blood sugar over two to three months.

In addition, new research from Dr. Roy Taylor of Newcastle University in England shows promise for true remission.

“Doctors tell their patients, ‘You’ve got a lifelong condition. We know it’s going to steadily get worse.’ Then they turn around and their patients aren’t losing weight or doing exercise, but they’ve given them this utterly depressing message,” he said.

Taylor’s research finds that by losing 30 pounds or so, Type 2 diabetes can be reversed in the early stages.

Ultimately, Taylor hopes, better nutrition will become the preferred response to high blood sugar in the next decade.

“I think the main headwinds [against progress] are just conceptual ones — of scientists and doctors believing this is an irreversible condition because of what we’ve seen,” he said.

Even the American Diabetes Association has been changing its views. The advocacy group has a new position on reversal:

“If a patient wishes to aim for the remission of Type 2 diabetes, particularly within six years of diagnosis, evidence-based weight management programs are often successful.”

Dr. John Buse, chief of endocrinology at the University of North Carolina medical school, helped write the new position on reversal.

“We’ve known, literally since the 17th century, that diet is the key to managing diabetes,” he said.

But it’s hard to write a prescription for a lifestyle change.

“Doctors don’t have the time to do it well, so we have often used the sort of short shrift,” he said. “‘Eat less carbohydrates and walk every day’ … that has basically no impact.”

The Wickhams are doing their part to add to the scientific data, tracking the blood sugar of the participants in their program. And the anecdotal, short-term evidence they’ve gathered is resonating far beyond Grundy County. They’ve been traveling more and more lately.

Steve Wickham, who is a nurse, draws blood at the midpoint of his and wife Karen’s six-week diabetes seminar. The hemoglobin A1c levels measured by the lab test help patients monitor whether the diet and exercise changes they’re engaged in are making a difference in their blood sugar levels.

The couple just sold their retirement home so they can say “yes” to all the invitations they’ve received, mostly from Seventh-day Adventist groups, to present their program to other communities around the country.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.