ST. LOUIS (AP) - New medical students at Washington University are stepping outside the classroom to see a side of St. Louis far different than the exclusive private school's leafy undergraduate campus and its Central West End medical complex.
The program has incoming students visit some of St. Louis' most distressed neighborhoods to expose the doctors-in-training to public health needs. The voluntary program is in its 14th year and becomes mandatory next year.
The program drew 85 of the school's 122 incoming medical students. Just 10 participated in its first year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (bit.ly/178MLic) reported.
"We don't want them to be locked in a classroom," said Will Ross, associate professor of diversity and creator of the Washington University Medical Plunge program. "We want them to get out and touch the community."
Ross said the school is one of the few in the country to offer such programs and has been contacted by other medical schools interested in adding similar programs. He told the students that the city of St. Louis is "a pocket of poverty in the midst of St. Louis County's relative affluence."
"Place matters. It has a fundamental impact on how healthy you are," he said. "Seeing where patients are from, they can now put diseases in context such as asthma. They can say: 'I see where they live now.' They are no longer locked into blaming the patient because they are not adhering to the medical plan. They no longer stigmatize the patient."
The tour began at Ivory Perry Park, just north of Delmar Boulevard on Belt Avenue. The stark racial split of the east-west thoroughfare — largely white and affluent to the south, mostly poor and black to the north — is referred to locally as the "Delmar Divide."
Architecture professor Bob Hansman took the students to the old Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the city's Ville neighborhood. The hospital, opened to serve black people, is now a senior living complex. The tour also included Lewis Place, one of several areas in the city where restrictive covenants prevented black people from buying houses.
Medical student Rachel Corbin, 24, is from St. Louis. She was unfamiliar with much of the history Hansman shared.
"This was really an important start to our medical education," she said. "It took us to parts of the city that we have been warned against seeing."
Kayla Berry, 22, of Knoxville, Tenn., said the tour should not be limited to medical students.
"Everyone should be going," Berry said. "People hear about it, but ignore it."
To bolster his point, Ross compared the ZIP code of 63105 covering the St. Louis County seat of Clayton near campus with 63113 in north St. Louis, the tour's focus and a statistical area dominated by neighborhoods filled with blocks of vacant lots and crumbling buildings.
The life expectancy in the city ZIP code is 65.9 years compared to 82.7 years in Clayton. Births without first trimester prenatal care are 27.1 percent in the north city compared to 2.2 percent in Clayton. The diabetes mortality rate in north city is almost 20 times higher, the rate of HIV cases eight times greater and heart disease more than double.
"Unless you know the background, it's easy to walk outdoors and misinterpret what you see," Hansman told the students. "This is the world you are going to walk into."
At Perry Park, the students heard about the violent death of Rodney McAllister, a 10-year-old mauled by a pack of dogs in 2001. A tree and plaque in the park serve as part of a memorial for the boy.
"Was this a tragic accident or a microcosm of other things?" Hansman said.