TCOM’s Primary Care Pathway Program pipeline to Midland opens this summer
This is the summer TCOM medical student Clarence Sparks has dreamed about — he gets to go home.
Sparks isn’t taking time off from his medical school training though. He starts training rotations in his hometown of Midland as the first member of the Primary Care Pathway Program (PCPP) to become one-step closer to fulfilling the mission of the program.
“I’m really excited to go back and see some of the people that I worked with in the clinics,” Sparks said. “The desire to go back and into a role where I know I’m going to be able to help people is something special.”
The PCPP launched in October 2015 with help from a $350,000 primary care innovation grant aimed at expanding undergraduate and graduate medical education (GME) across Texas. The program is a unique partnership between Midland College, Midland Memorial Hospital, the University of North Texas in Denton and the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
The program is not easy. Students must go through a rigorous curriculum at Midland College for two years before attending UNT in Denton for a year. Students who complete those three years then gain admittance into TCOM without requiring an MCAT score.
The accelerated pathway is academically demanding – fifteen semester credit hours including two sciences and one math each term, a 3.5 GPA and no repeated or dropped courses. The first two years at Midland College deliver solid academic preparation for the transfer to UNT Denton. Then, if all criteria are met, PCPP students are granted early acceptance to TCOM without an MCAT or an ungraduated degree.
Sparks, who traveled an unconventional road to TCOM, has thrived since arriving on campus in July of 2019. He completed a year serving as the Executive Council Secretary for the Medical Student Government Association and was the HOME Clinic Head Coordinator. His work since beginning the program nearly five years ago has made him a role model for those following him.
“Clarence is amazing; he’s full of so much knowledge and always willing to help,” said Natalie Adams, a first-year student at TCOM and member of the PCPP. “He’s full of resources and leadership. If I didn’t reach out to him I wouldn’t be where I am today in the program.”
Adams herself took a unique road to medical school. Upon entering Midland College, she had attended orientation at Midland College determined to become a physical therapy or a Physician’s Assistant. But becoming a doctor seemed out of the question.
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“Dr. Margaret Wade pulled me aside because I wanted to pursue a biology degree and kept telling me about this program,” Adams said. “And I kept telling her ‘no thank you, I’m not interested’ but she just kept pursuing me.”
After a week of dogged pursuit by Dr. Wade, Adams finally agreed to meet about the program and was sold instantly.
“I had gotten into the program and everything they incorporated and the classes I was taking, and I absolutely fell in love with the idea of becoming a doctor,” Adams said.
While Adams, along with three other students, were one year-behind Sparks, he knew he was going to be a role model.
“One of the things I really strived for was to be a mentor for whoever was going through the program, and that’s why I did a lot of tutoring at Midland College,” he said. “I just tried to be honest with them. The first time I saw the amount of work that went into medical school, I nearly panicked.
“I thought this is impossible; it’s like a full semester of classes every two weeks. But the craziest thing you find out is that you can do it, you can incorporate it and they want you to learn. The feeling that you can do it, it’s phenomenal.”
It didn’t take long for Sparks to make an impression on his classmates. Whatever trepidation he had about having to prove himself washed away as his class embraced him.
“Student Doctor Clarence Sparks is the most humble, kind, and hard-working individual that I have met throughout my time at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine,” said fellow second-year student Kendrick Lim. “I met Clarence during the first few weeks of medical school and ultimately served alongside him as a class officer. I am very grateful to have gotten to know and work with Clarence on so many different projects throughout medical school, and I am excited to see the great things that he will do in Midland as part of the Primary Care Pathway Program.”
Upon graduation, PCPP strives to the reverse the pipeline back to Midland and address a significant problem plaguing rural communities. To renew the bonds developed at Midland College, PCPP students return to rural west Texas for their clerkship rotations during years three and four of medical school to address the lack of healthcare providers.
Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, but only 11 percent of physicians practice in those areas, and the number of practicing primary care physicians in the Midland area is dwindling.
Statewide, the primary care physician shortage is expected to grow from about 2,000 to nearly 3,400 in the next 10 years. Sparks, along with Adams and the rest of the PCPP, will be addressing the primary care shortage in their hometowns, precisely the intent of the program when it began in 2015.
With Sparks being closer to achieving his lifelong goal of being a primary care physician in Midland, he’s kept himself grounded and trying not looking too far into the future.
“Not really, only in those nervous moments,” Sparks said with a laugh. “But someday I’m going to be the guy in the practice and that hasn’t really sunk in yet. At this point, it almost has been like dream the entire time. I never thought I would get this far and to do everything I have done. It has been an amazing opportunity and it’s worth it.”