Meharry Remains Big Producer of Black Doctors, Dentists

During National Minority Health Month, BET.com looks at the Nashville medical school that has regained a robust financial status after a slump in the 1980s.

Posted: 04/08/2013 04:40 PM EDT

It is the most prominent institution in the United States that educates African-American doctors and dentists. In fact, Meharry Medical College is one of the top five producers of African-American Ph.D.s in the country and graduates as much as 20 percent of the Black dentists in the United States.

Meharry, which is one of four historically Black medical colleges in the country, trains doctors for service in largely urban areas and rural areas where Black residents live. In the days when American education was segregated, Meharry educated roughly half of the nation’s Black doctors and dentists.

In many ways, Meharry, which is located in Nashville, is seeing some of its best days. In the current academic year, the school had more than 5,000 applicants for the 105 positions in the medical program and 2,300 applicants for the 60 first-year dental slots, an increase of more than 30 percent in the last five years.

“It indicates that people still see Meharry Medical College as a great place to pursue a career in medicine,” said Wayne J. Riley, the school's president and chief executive officer, in an interview with BET.com.

“We have a health policy center that better trains our students,” Riley said. “Our endowment growth has been very impressive. We’re up to $125 million. And they’re not many historically Black colleges and universities that have more than $100 million in endowment. Our national profile has never been higher.”

Also, the school is in the final stage of a giant, $70 million campus infrastructure upgrade program that includes the construction of the first new building since 1977 as well as a new $25 million campus center. The school is also building 140 units of new student housing while renovating an old nursing school building that has been mothballed for a quarter century.

“All totaled, we have an aggressive program that will be aided by a combination of philanthropy and by taking advantage of historically low interest rates to borrow,” Riley said. “This will really lay the foundation for Meharry’s program for the next century.”

It is a far cry from where Meharry found itself just 25 years ago, when the school’s resources were sapped and it suffered from equipment and plant difficulties. At the same time, the school suffered from a loss of accreditation for its pediatrics, surgery and ob-gyn residency training programs.

Riley said that the financial crisis was the result of Meharry providing medical care to too many Nashville residents who were unable to pay for it.

The school was founded in 1876 as the medical department of Central Tennessee College. It became the first medical school in the American south for Black students. It is currently the largest private historically Black institution in the United States solely dedicated to educating health care professionals and scientists.

Riley said that the school's mission has always been providing care for poor citizens.

“Meharry has always taken care of the least of these,” he said. “And they were the source of our financial problem. We were taking care of so many indigent patients and not getting paid. But we have been able to tweak our business model to take in more revenue sources. But we still take care of a lot of people who are poor and uninsured.”

He added that, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act over the next decade, “we see opportunities to take care of more folks. But we also will be able to take care of folks who have some sort of insurance, which will strengthen our balance sheet even more.”

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(Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)

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