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Christiona Harris, 18, plans to attend medical school after college, with help from Baltimore's MERIT program. - 

At 9:30 on a recent Saturday morning, when a lot of teenagers were still home in bed, 10 high school seniors sat in a conference room at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, talking about what it takes to succeed in medical school.

“You’re going to need study groups, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Allah,” said instructor Damien Myers. “Everything you can get a hold of, you’ll need on your side.”

Myers is chief education officer of a program called MERIT, which helps prepare mostly black and Latino students to become doctors, medical examiners and public health leaders. Together, African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, but just 9 percent of doctors. Meanwhile, the number of black men applying to medical school is lower than it was in the late 1970s. Health experts say the lack of diversity in medicine contributes to disparities in the care patients receive.

Damien Myers

When Myers finished medical school in 2007, he was one of only two black men in his class of 110. He left medicine to give students the kind of support he wishes he’d had.

“If you don't have someone in your corner encouraging you, you can become discouraged and find an easier path,” he said. “We're not going to lie and say it's an easy path, but it is attainable. It’s doable.”

That’s not a message 18-year-old Christiona Harris said she and her fellow students have heard enough in their lives. She wants to be a pediatric trauma surgeon.

“A young black boy – if he's tall, he's a basketball player. If he's stocky, he's a football player. Why can't he be a surgeon?” she said. “Or a black girl with a lot of knowledge. ‘Oh, you going to be a nurse?’ Why can't I go that extra mile and be a doctor?”

Christiona and her fellow students have already gone the extra mile – and then some. Starting sophomore year, MERIT scholars give up most Saturday mornings to take classes on preparing for college, exploring different types of health careers, and understanding the role race plays in health care. In the summers they do paid internships in hospitals and laboratories.

MERIT is one of a growing number of so-called pipeline programs. The Tour for Diversity in Medicine sends groups of black and Latino doctors and dentists around the country to talk with high school and college students. Its latest stop, Thursday in Austin, TX, features workshops on college preparation and public health for 9th through 11th graders.

“When you diversify the physicians, not only do the physicians treat more patients of color, more patients of disadvantaged backgrounds, but the patients themselves actually respond more favorably,” said co-founder Kameron Matthews, a family physician in Chicago. “You really can affect patient outcomes.”

But first, those would-be doctors have to get into – and through – medical school. Baltimore’s MERIT program continues to support students through that process. The program is too new to know how many will make it, but so far, according to the group, all of its graduates have gone to four-year colleges, where they’re getting mostly As and Bs.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports