The 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement began have brought many changes. But according to the National Medical Association, African Americans are just as underrepresented among the nation’s physicians as they were 100 years ago. Then and now, they account for only 3 percent of all physicians. And that’s not likely to change soon. African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 7 percent of medical school graduates.
One young ophthalmologist has decided to blaze a new trail — by mentoring underrepresented minority students and propelling them into the career that she loves.
Meet Chasidy Singleton, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute in Nashville, Tenn. In addition to her clinical duties, Dr. Singleton works as an associate professor at Meharry Medical College, an historically black college known as a top educator of African-American physicians.
In 2012, the National Medical Association’s ophthalmology section nominated Dr. Singleton to participate in the Academy’s Leadership Development Program. As part of the program, every graduate completes a project; for hers, Dr. Singleton chose to develop a pipeline mentoring program in her community, focused on developing future physicians.
She designed the program to increase student interest in ophthalmology by both fostering confidence in their abilities and teaching the appropriate work ethic necessary for a career in medicine. However, the project recently expanded into Peyeoneers.com, a website designed to teach students from middle school through medical school about all aspects of ophthalmology.
YO Info talked to Dr. Singleton about her inspiration and hopes for the Peyeoneers project.
YO Info: What is the Peyeoneers project and why did you develop it?
There are very few minority physicians in the United States compared with the overall numbers. One way to help increase the numbers of minority students who eventually become physicians is through mentorship early on in the education pipeline — basically intervening in their lives as early as possible so that they can start to develop good work ethics and study habits, both of which are crucial for matriculating into college and medical school.
I wanted to initiate this type of mentoring program in my local middle schools to boost interest in medicine and make students aware of the exciting field of ophthalmology. My son attended a very racially diverse math-and-science magnet middle school in Nashville, so I worked with his principal to put together my first program.
First, I organized a survey to get an idea of the career interests of the children and then gave a presentation to over 100 students about why I chose to become a physician — showing them the other options I had and why I eventually decided on ophthalmology. Then, I distributed another career interest survey to determine if I affected the students’ interests.
While working on all of this, I quickly realized that I could make my presentations available online so that students could refer back to what I had previously discussed with them. So, now, they can learn about the entire ophthalmology universe online, including eye anatomy, diversity in medicine, the differences between private and academic practice and the innovators and leaders of our field. Because of the online format, a good portion of this content comes directly from the perspective of actual ophthalmologists via YouTube videos.
YO Info: Are you hopeful that educating students in this manner could also change popular misconceptions about ophthalmology and optometry?
Definitely. They learn about the differences between members of the eye care team — from optician to optometrist to ophthalmologist — as well as the different types of subspecialists in our field.
Some of the middle school students I mentor also review the website with their parents. One parent, who happened to be a patient of mine, didn’t realize what ophthalmologists actually do — she had originally conflated us with optometrists. After reviewing the website with her child, however, she was better able to distinguish between the two professions and understand the significant amount of training it takes to become an eye surgeon. Being an advocate, this made me very happy!
YO Info: How did participating in the Academy’s LDP influence your project?
I was nominated to participate in the LDP by the ophthalmology section of the National Medical Association — a historically African-American physician group focused on the continuing education of minority physicians and the elimination of health care disparities among minorities.
The ophthalmologists in my LDP class gave me incredible advice on how to become an effective leader — he or she must inspire others to be passionate about their goals as well as provide the necessary amount of freedom for others to shape their own futures. The LDP experience also inspired me to work hard and really helped expand my horizons.
The concept that I developed for mentoring young students was quite different from the ideas that were shared by both current and prior LDP groups. Many LDP participants focus on state advocacy projects and mentoring current young ophthalmologists. But I knew there was a missing niche in how we advocate on behalf of our profession. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs have already demonstrated tremendous success in increasing minority student entrance into these fields. We also needed an ophthalmology-type program for middle and high school students in order to broaden exposure to ophthalmology as a potential career option.
YO Info: What was the most challenging aspect of the Peyeoneers project?
I had never developed a website before — it’s hard work! Narrowing down the content and making it understandable for students at all levels took a lot of time. But when you set your mind to do something that you are passionate about, it becomes enjoyable, despite the obstacles.
And the end product has been so rewarding. I have a particular soft spot for my county hospital patients, some of whom are homeless, incarcerated or living in nursing homes and some of whom are simply disillusioned about the health care system and seek care too late. I really wanted to help increase student interest in ophthalmology so that, hopefully, they would return to these local communities to improve ocular health and access to care. By bringing attention to the accomplished, compassionate and diverse ophthalmologists in our field — the true “peyeoneers” — I hope to inspire students to do just that.
For more information about the Academy’s Leadership Development Program, see the online brochure, or contact Gail Schmidt, director of Ophthalmic Society Relations.
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About the author: Mike Mott is a contributing writer for YO Info and a former assistant editor for EyeNet Magazine.