Dr. Miguel Escanelle has always loved science.
As an elementary school student in Cuba, he remembers excelling in his science and math classes, while struggling in Spanish. When he was 9 years old, his father left Cuba for the Dominican Republic and he and his mother found themselves alone.
After his mother lost her job as a special education teacher, they applied for asylum, waited a year for a visa, and arrived in Homestead during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was 15 and entered Coral Gables Senior High in the middle of her sophomore year, staying there until graduation.
He then enrolled at Miami Dade College, where he studied physics and engineering, believing that the University of Miami was a dream school only for people with money. He earned his associate degree from MDC; in 2013, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Florida International University.
Now Escanelle, 32, is a resident cardiac anesthesiologist with an MD from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He credits the Medical Scholars Program, a University of Miami summer program that prepares underserved students for medical school, with providing him with the support system needed to succeed.
Without the program, he says, he probably would have become an engineer. At one point in his training, his adviser had even suggested that he become a general contractor, which he had never expressed any interest in.
Partnership UM, MDC
Earlier this month, Miami Dade College and UM announced that they would create a new partnership aimed at ensuring that more MDC students can participate in the Medical Scholars Summer Program. The medical school and MDC have signed an agreement that guarantees a place for qualified MDC students in the Medical Scholars program.
The program accepts approximately 120 students each year and is free. The program mentors students and helps them with scholarship applications, housing, meals, and transportation allowances. Students apply by writing a personal statement and sending transcripts and letters of recommendation.
Dr. Henri Ford, dean of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, says he hopes the program will change the face of medicine and be a step toward greater equity in health care.
“This program is the hope for the future; it is essential for the community,” he said.
Medical scholars live in the University of Miami’s Coral Gables undergraduate dorms and complete rigorous coursework at the medical school, located near Jackson Memorial Hospital. Escanelle remembers taking courses in immunology, biochemistry, human physiology and bioethics.
The curriculum is rigorous, and students “must be willing to make that contract with themselves,” Escanelle said.
Even after going through the program, Escanelle had a moment of doubt. Going to medical school and fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor would mean attending 14 years of school, including his undergraduate studies, the time he could earn money to support his mother.
Dr. Nanette Vega, Assistant Professor of Medical Education and Assistant Dean of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at faculty of medicine, encourages Escanelle to persevere. She offered him a summer job in her office preparing students for the MCAT, the exams needed to attend medical school, to encourage Escanelle to stay true to his dream of becoming an anesthesiologist.
“There were so many times where I thought I might give up and found support,” Escanelle said.
Shortage of doctors
By 2034, projections call for a shortage of 37,000 to 124,000 doctors nationwide, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The shortage is most acute among black and Hispanic doctors. In 2019, just under 6% of American physicians identified as Hispanic and only 5% identified as black, according to association data.
“These are statistics that we need to change,” Ford said.
Students in the Medical Scholars program often tell Vega, “This is the first time I’ve met a black doctor or a female doctor,” she said. When a Colombian student felt embarrassed because of her accent, Vega assured her that it would be an asset in the medical profession.
Shortly after, the student used her Spanish to put a Spanish-speaking patient at ease while following a doctor who only spoke English.
“The biggest thing the program did for me was make me realize it was possible, and it also showed me what it takes to make it happen,” Escanelle said.
Level of comfort with a doctor who speaks their language
Studies show that having a health care provider who is the same race as a patient or who speaks the same language means the patient is more likely to accept preventive care. Yet only 23% of Hispanic and Latino patients said their health care provider spoke to them in the language they preferred, according to a 2021 health reform monitoring survey.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a patient room and they’re scared. They don’t speak English. But when I communicate with them in Spanish, they feel much more comfortable and they open up. They go into surgery knowing that there are people behind the scenes who look like them and who will support them,” Escanelle said.
Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade College, said the program will change the trajectories of people’s lives.
Sixty percent of Miami high school graduates who attend college enroll at Miami Dade College, and she’s glad the door for them to attend medical school is now easier to open.
At the recent launch of the partnership, Escanelle apologized to the crowd for not having prepared a speech, as he had just finished a 16-hour shift at the Jackson Memorial.
He joked about switching from physics to medicine because “he likes talking to people, not machines.”
But then he turned to the Miami Dade Honors College students participating in the program and told them they deserved just as much, if not more, than other medical school students.
“If I did it, all of you can do it,” he said. “For me, it’s personal. When I look at these students, I see myself.