Opening Doors: ASCO Aims to Increase Workforce Diversity Through Physician Mentoring Program

Opening Doors: ASCO Aims to Increase Workforce Diversity Through Physician Mentoring Program

Olumide Gbolahan, MD, faced a familiar dilemma among aspiring oncologists.

Dr. Taofeek K. Owonikok

Dr. Gbolahan, an internal medicine resident of the Morehouse School of Medicine, wanted extra time and experience in an oncologic elective summer rotation to ease his transition from internal medicine to oncology. Unsure of the best strategy, he sought out a mentor through the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program.

Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD, of the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology and the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, began mentoring Dr. Gbolahan in early 2014 through the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program. The ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program fosters relationships between physicians-in-training and experienced oncology professionals in an effort to recruit and retain individuals underrepresented in medicine to careers in oncology.

Dr. Owonikoko, an associate director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at his institution, evaluates the applications of Emory’s hematology and oncology fellowship candidates. He knew what type of elective program would most likely benefit his mentee.

The elective outside rotation Dr. Gbolahan initially considered, Dr. Owonikoko said, was not the right fit.

“I said if the goal is to get into a fellowship, a 1-month elective rotation in a basic science laboratory is probably not going to help you so much at this stage of your career. You need to do something different,” Dr. Owonikoko said.

Armed with that advice, Dr. Gbolahan applied and was accepted for another program that better fit his career goals. 

“As a junior person in the profession, you don’t know how to navigate your way,” Dr. Gbolahan said. “If you are lucky or if you are hardworking, maybe things will open up for you. But if you have somebody who is holding your hand, the doors will open more easily.”

A Need to Diversify the Oncology Workforce

Oncology, like many other fields of medicine, has statistically less physicians who are African American, Hispanic, or female than white male physicians. ASCO recognizes that diversifying the health professional workforce is a key strategy to addressing disparities in health care outcomes.

A sample of 4,000 oncologic physicians indicated 59% of the workforce is white, according to a 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges report.1 That total is compounded by a lack of minority candidates entering the field of oncology.

Only 2.3% of practicing oncologists are African American, according to the 2015 ASCO report The State of Cancer Care in America.2 In training programs, only 4% of oncology fellows are African American. Similarly, only 3% of practicing oncologists and 5.8% of oncology fellows are Hispanic.

Women also make up a smaller percentage of active oncologic physicians; 30.2% of the 13,755 active hematology and oncology physicians in 2013 were women, according to a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.3

A lack of workforce diversity among physicians can negatively affect the quality of care of minority patients, according to the 2004 Sullivan Commission report “Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions.”4

According to the report, “studies suggest that increasing the diversity of the health workforce can improve patient access, patient satisfaction, and quality of care for all patients.”

A diverse physician workforce brings increased cultural competency and engenders trust and comfort in patients. Providing increased and improved clinical oncology care to underserved communities calls for the recruitment of
oncologists from diverse backgrounds.

The Benefits of a Mentor–Mentee Relationship

The ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program seeks to educate medical students and residents about rewarding careers in oncology by pairing them with established oncology professionals. Nearly 80 mentees and mentors have been paired since 2014.

“For an [early-career] oncologist, mentors can offer guidance for personal, research, and professional development,” said Sandra Wong, MD, MS, FACS, of the University of Michigan Health System and immediate past chair of the ASCO’s Health Disparities Committee. “Facilitating opportunities for a mentor–mentee relationship is a win-win. By connecting students and physicians-in-training with experienced cancer care providers, the hope is that more prospective oncologists, especially those from underrepresented populations, will choose to pursue oncology as a career.”

The ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program requires a 1-year commitment from mentors and mentees. Participants are encouraged to communicate remotely by various sources of technology, including email, phone, instant message, and video conference.

Mentors must be an ASCO member residing in the United States. Those participating in the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program can be found at the Annual Meeting wearing a purple ribbon.

Mentees must be students enrolled in a DO or MD medical school in the United States or residents enrolled in an ACGME-accredited residency program.

Karen M. Winkfield, MD, PhD, director of hematologic radiation oncology of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, helped launch the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program in 2013. Dr. Winkfield, a member of ASCO’s Health Disparities Committee and chair of its Workforce Development Work Group, said one of the program’s goals in future years is increasing participation among mentors.

Overall more than 100 medical students and residents applied to the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program, yet there were not enough volunteers that met the needs of what some applicants were looking for in a mentor. For example, there was a high demand among applicants to be matched with pediatric oncologists, yet a limited number of pediatric oncologists volunteered.

Increasing mentorship will not only benefit the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program, but also the field of oncology overall, Dr. Winkfield said.

“Students oftentimes will gravitate to topics that interest them,” Dr. Winkfield said. “Just having someone who is fascinating, someone who you can look up to, that sometimes in and of itself can encourage a medical student to go into oncology.”

Although primarily designed for medical students and residents underrepresented in medicine, the ASCO Diversity Mentoring Program is open to any medical student or resident interested in learning more about the field of oncology. For more information, please visit