Mentoring program empowers youth to pursue a career in medicine

With recent headlines drawing attention to communities like God River and Attawapiskat, the nation’s attention has been drawn to the current state of healthcare on northern aboriginal reserves. Here nursing stations suffer a high staff turn-over rate and a single physician must care for up to 4000 people, usually by flying in once per week or through video conference.

This drastic shortage of health care human resources is also seen in rural and certain ethno-specific communities across Canada. Research shows that medical students who are members of these populations are more likely to enter primary care settings and practice in their home community. However, the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada identifies a significant lack of cultural diversity and under-representation of students from rural or low-socioeconomic status communities in our medical schools.

Led by young Dr. Andrew D. Brown, Altitude Healthcare Mentoring aims to close this gap. “Our goal is simple; to help students, brimming with potential reach a summit perceived to be insurmountable-a career in healthcare. It is from this analogy that Altitude derives its name. The program encourages the next generation of health care professionals to reach higher in search of their dreams.”

The group admits that although students from underrepresented communities possess the intellectual capacity to excel academically, many of these students lack the financial and cultural capital necessary to pursue a career in medicine. Often they are the first in their family able to pursue a post-secondary education or they have been socialized to believe a career in medicine is unobtainable. In terms of medical school admission, the greatest barriers to these students are the undergraduate grade point average, lack of social support and lack of financial relief.

Altitude uses high quality near-peer and cascading mentorship models, which place great emphasis on service-learning. All mentees are strongly encouraged to serve as a mentor for other youth in their communities when they complete the program. Through these mentor relationships students are empowered to realize their potential as the next generation of bright, confident and compassionate health care professionals.

To help ensure a successful transition from high school to university life, Altitude also hosts a multi-day conference called BaseCamp. The BaseCamp conference equips students with the tools they need to succeed in the first-year of university, such as active reading methods and stress management. BaseCamp uses a variety of interactive exercises, motivational speakers and collaborative games based on strengthening student success, empowerment and relationship building.

With the support of TD Canada Trust and Ryerson University, Altitude hosted its inaugural BaseCamp in 2011. In addition to providing monetary support, TD Canada Trust also provided free financial workshops on student-centered topics like budgeting and maintaining good credit during university years. BaseCamp conference delegates were later matched with mentors for the year-long program.

The program’s mentors are also supported in their own academic progression through medical school. Altitude provides its mentors with in-service training three times per year. These sessions discuss topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, mentoring strategies and professional competency. The mentors are then introduced to physicians in their community who provide insight into their own life experiences and professional path. Local physicians are encouraged to volunteer as their advice is highly valued by Altitude’s medical student mentors.

As a new initiative of the Ontario Medical Students Association, the student voice of the Ontario Medical Association, Altitude’s programs are currently established in eight cities across southern Ontario with plans to expand to northern Ontario this year (2012). With the new sites in Thunder Bay and Sudbury, Altitude is hoping to have an impact on both rural and northern Aboriginal communities through a partnership with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Altitude will also host the second annual BaseCamp in August 2012. Altitude’s mentorship services are free and available by referral from high school educators or self-application. More information about the program and volunteer opportunities for physicians is available online at or by following Altitude on twitter, @altitudeHCM.