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Alden M. Landry, M.D.: Driving Diversity

The Tour for Diversity in Medicine founder brings mentors to students

“If we’re going to address health disparities, we have to think broader, deeper and outside the box.”

As co-founder of Tour for Diversity in Medicine, Alden Landry, M.D., 32, puts that philosophy into overdrive.

A mentoring campaign on wheels, Tour for Diversity (T4D) literally drives possibilities with a bus full of mentors to underrepresented students aspiring to be the health professionals of the future. The mobile mentors have hit nearly 30 campuses, reaching more than 2,000 students since the bus began rolling in 2012.

Scan Dr. Landry’s credentials. They spell health-care superhero. With formidable dedication, the ER physician reaches out, gives back, and pays it forward.

“Many students don’t know where to go or how to get guidance, even to prepare for medical or dental school entrance exams,” says Dr. Landry. “So our solution is to go to them.”

He is convinced that the Tour, in conjunction with other diversity efforts, can increase the pipeline of minorities into the health professions, ultimately resulting in greater access to care for underserved communities.

Tour for Diversity in Medicine (T4D) mission: To educate, inspire, and cultivate future physicians and dentists of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds by forming local connections in order to fulfill a national need.

The seeds of T4D were planted in 2005, the brainchild of Dr. Landry and Kameron Leigh Matthews, M.D. They’d just finished a conference call for the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), which works to increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent, and socially conscious physicians.

Dr. Matthews, then SNMA president, and Dr. Landry, a board member, collectively experienced an “aha” moment.

“SNMA wasn’t reaching many historically black colleges and universities,” she says. It also wasn’t reaching community colleges, which enroll large numbers of minorities but offer limited programming, mentors, or advisers in the medical field.

Wondering how to change that dynamic, they thought, “Why don’t we go to them?” And then, Dr. Matthews says, one of them blurted out, “We should just get on a bus!”

It was a radical notion. Sure, there were plenty of medical career fairs; some of them even courted underrepresented students.

But none of them got on a bus to break down the barriers confronting those students.

Transforming Careers—And Lives

Initially, the duo had trouble getting their show on the road. “Nobody paid attention to two medical students,” he says. Stymied, they returned their focus to completing med school.

But like all great ideas that are waiting for the right time and place to take off, this one never died.

Flash forward to another phone conversation—this one in 2011, after both had finished their residencies. “We were moving up in the ranks,” Dr. Landry recalls, “and I said, ‘Kam, it’s now or never!’”

This time, doors opened and people listened. The Aetna Foundation and the U.S. Army pledged financial backing. Colleagues with diverse backgrounds and experiences, who knew firsthand the value of mentors, signed on.

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“Without hesitation, people took time off,” Dr. Landry marvels. “They left their families behind and got on the bus because they believed in our dream—and our mission was theirs.”

They’ve reached 2,000 participants so far. The foundation of that success is the diversity of the mentors themselves. Some are practicing physicians or dentists; others are still students. All are minorities.

“It’s one thing to believe in your dreams,” one elated Tour attendee said, “but to see people that look like you, who believe in you and have achieved your dreams, is priceless.”

Rolling Over Speed Bumps

As with any fledgling venture, the inaugural Tour was “not flawless by any stretch of the imagination,” Dr. Landry notes wryly. Minor snags were complicated by a bus breakdown ’round midnight during a six-hour drive from South Carolina to Alabama.

Still, Dr. Landry kept the mood upbeat. “We were playing Red Light/Green Light on the side of the interstate at 2 in the morning,” he says.

Although the delay meant they didn’t reach their hotel until 3:30 a.m., the team persevered. Despite their unanticipated roadside adventure, many signed up for another Tour.

“We always have people coming up saying, ‘How can I get on the bus?’” Dr. Landry says.

He considers that a testament to the Tour’s vision. “They believe efforts like ours can increase the number of underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students in the health professions.”

There’s also Dr. Landry’s contagious enthusiasm for paying it forward—a passion born of the mentorship he’s received himself.

Lasting Effects

Dr. Landry remembers his first mentor: his grandmother, a registered nurse. “We often talked about how it made her day to take care of patients and help improve their care. She was proud of what she did.”

Told he was contemplating a career in medicine, she pushed him to become a physician. “She had a huge impact on me,” he says.

That sort of prodding has characterized his career, figuring into his decision to apply to SMDEP in 2000. His adviser at Prairie View A&M University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2002, explained that summer programs and early exposure to careers in medicine were crucial when applying to medical schools. He assured Dr. Landry that SMDEP, known then as MMEP, could get him all the exposure he needed.

For Dr. Landry, the six-week session at the University of Alabama–Birmingham would open doors to new people and experiences, and confirm that medicine was his calling.

While shadowing in the emergency department at UAB—part of the MMEP experience—he met a black physician. “When I got to medical school, I contacted him and next thing I know, he became my mentor.” When Dr. Landry decided to specialize in emergency medicine, that same doctor guided him through applying for residencies.

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“I don’t know if I would have discovered emergency medicine without that shadowing opportunity,” he says.

He sees his own mentorship efforts, including T4D, as a way to pay back that opportunity by giving to others. “Letting medical students, college students, and even high school students shadow me is an extension of what was offered to me at MMEP.”

It Takes More Than Science

Much has changed since Dr. Landry completed medical school in 2006. He stresses to aspiring doctors that in today’s technologically advanced world, a prospective M.D. needs more than an interest in science.

“When I was in college, everybody who wanted to be a physician was a biology or a chemistry major,” he explains. But today, with seismic changes in our culture, doctors ”must have exposure to diverse populations,” he contends. “You need an understanding of IT and social networking. You need an understanding of ethics, psychology, public policy, sociology.”

That evolution will be reflected in the questions that appear on the MCAT—the Medical Association Admission Test—beginning in 2015.

“The physician of old is not the physician of the future,” Dr. Landry says. Activism is an asset. “You can’t just hang a shingle and be seen as a community leader.

“You have to be involved, integrated into the community; willing to get your hands dirty and think deeper, wider, and outside the box.”

“There’s so much more to being a physician,” he insists, “than putting a stethoscope around your neck.”

Paying It Forward

Whether he’s educating youth about healthcare and health career opportunities through his Hip Hop Health nonprofit, lending his expertise to programs devoted to solving the health disparity problem, or wheeling down the road with T4D, Alden Landry is invested in his mentees.

“It’s hard for an 18-year-old to understand what four years of college and another four years of medical school means,” he says. “That’s eight years—almost half as long as they’ve been alive!”

The Road Taken

Inspirational. Life-changing. That’s what students say about T4D.

Said one student, “Seeing so many physicians who look like me and are excited not only about medicine but about me and my future is very uplifting.”

Another enthused, “I believe I can do anything after today.”

Reflecting on the struggles of those who went before him affects Landry deeply, underscoring the significance of programs like SMDEP.

“I think we’re a testament to the importance and the success of SMDEP,” he says.

“I can’t say we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today, but I can definitely say we’re better because we participated in the program.”

“Down the road,“ projects Dr. Landry, “this can significantly help to eliminate health disparities.”

From the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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