Blog | Community Benefit

Addressing Health Disparities by Promoting Achievement in Disadvantaged Students

Blog | Community Benefit

Addressing Health Disparities by Promoting Achievement in Disadvantaged Students

Barry D. Mann describes a national program that Main Line Health initiated to engage disadvantaged high school students in learning about healthcare operations and career possibilities.

In 2008, I had the privilege of launching what is now known as the Health Career Academy (HCA) at Main Line Health. This thriving educational enrichment program helps disadvantaged high school students across the country develop the skills to explore and pursue careers in health care. It demonstrates a collective commitment to enhance equity in health care and create a pipeline for the next generation of healthcare professionals.

The HCA began at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. Like many public high schools in the Philadelphia school district, Overbrook serves communities that are low-income and composed of ethnic and racial minorities. It is just a few miles from our Lankenau Medical Center, but it presents a stark contrast to the high schools in the more affluent communities that surround the hospitals of Main Line Health.  

At the program’s inception, nurses, social workers, and physicians from Lankenau, along with a cadre of medical students from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, volunteered their time throughout the school year to introduce Overbrook’s 10th graders to the world of the emergency room. Participants gained an understanding of how healthcare workers care for patients, learned about various healthcare career options, and received guidance in planning to reach career goals. The program was incredibly well-received.

In the program’s second year, we added an 11th-grade curriculum that was designed to follow the same cohort of students who begin the program in the 10th grade. The 11th-grade curriculum focused on issues of public health, self-care, and safety, with topics that included nutrition, cancer, violence prevention, STDs, and heart disease. Soon, other medical schools in the area began inquiring about the program and reached out to partner with underserved high schools in their communities.

A 12th-grade curriculum subsequently was developed, challenging high school seniors to reach out to community partners to design and conduct health fairs for their schools and neighborhoods. 

Going National

After becoming aware of our program, Aetna helped us to test the replicability of the concept in other cities. The HCA was implemented in Atlanta in 2014, proving this model could be successful wherever there are students in need of engagement and enthusiastic mentors ready to engage them.

Today, I am proud to share that the HCA is in 11 cities—including Austin, Boston, Chicago, Durham, N.C., Gwinnett County, Ga., Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, and St. Louis—and involves 19 partner medical schools. I remain an active member of the HCA executive team, and my colleague Liana Gefter, MD, MPH, who launched the program in Atlanta, serves as the organization’s national director.

While the HCA continues to grow, the original concept and purpose remain clear.

Medical students and students in the allied health fields volunteer their time throughout the school year, sharing their interest in science and health with high school students, many of whom are at risk. They are forming bonds with these kids at critical times in their young lives, exposing them to subjects outside of their normal curriculum. The medical students serve as mentors and role models, encouraging students to stay in school and potentially pursue careers in health care.

Positive Metrics

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities shows that 86 percent of 10th graders and 71 percent of 11th graders who participated in the HCA are considering careers in health care. They cited time with mentors, the opportunity to learn about science and health, team collaboration, hands-on experiences, field trips, and team presentations among their favorite aspects of the program.

Based on our most recent data, exposure to the HCA seems to improve the high school graduation rate of the participants specifically targeted by the program—underserved students with inquisitive minds who are capable of striving for successful careers in health care. We are demonstrating with this program how healthcare organizations can work together to create a pipeline of providers at all levels.

If you are interested in learning more about the HCA or would like to consider implementing the program in your area, please visit

Barry D. Mann, MD, is chief academic officer, Main Line Health, Wynnewood, Pa.

Read more posts on the Leadership Blog, including a previous post co-authored by Barry D. Mann on a holistic approach to reducing readmission rates.

About the Authors

Barry D. Mann,


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