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Motivating Pre-Meds: Dr. Renée Volny Darko Helps the Next Generation Succeed

September 15, 2022

 

To celebrate Women in Medicine Month, AACOM interviewed Renée Volny Darko, DO, MBA, an obstetrician-gynecologist with more than 15 years of experience helping pre-medical students get accepted into medical school. Dr. Darko is the founder of Pre-med Strategies, Inc., hosts the Total Pre-med Makeover podcast and serves as a mentor in the Tour for Diversity in Medicine. She practices in rural and underserved communities, participates in medical missions in Ghana and works to address health policy issues and women's health disparities through freelance writing.

Dr. Darko’s commitment to diversity in medicine and passion for helping others succeed are an inspiring example to women in osteopathic medicine and beyond.

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The answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: As a non-traditional pre-med student, you were determined to get into medical school on your first try. You developed a successful application strategy and were accepted into both DO and MD schools. Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor, and more specifically, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO)?

Dr. Darko: What's funny, especially for Women in Medicine Month, is that when I was about three years old, I told my dad I wanted to be a nurse. He said, “Why not a doctor?” I said, “Girls can't be doctors,” and he said, “Of course they can be doctors.” I said, “Okay, well then I want to be a doctor!” And I continued saying it from that moment on. As a non-traditional student, I had a tough transition into college. I had always done very well in school but once I got into college I was overwhelmed with the amount of coursework. I spoke with my pre-med advisor, and she essentially told me to go to graduate school and do something else. You have to understand, this is my first year of college. I’m about 18 or 19 years old and I’m being told that my life is determined upon the fact that I failed chemistry. No options were given to me and there was no discussion of MD schools, much less DO schools. I didn't learn about osteopathic medicine until much later while I was doing my post bac and started meeting other non-traditional students. Once I started learning more about the osteopathic philosophy I thought, wow, this really embodies what a physician should be. I went to the Student National Medical Association conference and chose to go to the info session on osteopathic medicine. That’s where I met my mentor, who taught me even more about osteopathic medicine and inspired me to apply much more widely. I ended up getting into both DO and MD schools but ultimately chose DO because of the philosophy. It's been one of the best choices I’ve ever made because I really ascribe to the osteopathic philosophy.

Q: In addition to your medical career, you are also passionate about helping more students get into medical school. How do you balance caring for patients with helping nurture the next generation of physicians? How do you do it all?

Dr. Darko: I realized early on in my career that I wanted to help pre-meds get into medical school, especially pre-meds who are underrepresented in medicine. Currently I do what they call locum tenens, which allows me to be flexible with my schedule and use my time in the most effective way. I can see patients, spend time with my family—I have two young children—and work with pre-meds. Last night I was able to put on a medical school info session for one of the osteopathic schools. Without that flexibility, I would either not do these events at all or I’d be too tired to do them well. Having flexibility by doing locum tenens is really the right balance for me.

Q: In case anyone doesn't know, what is locum tenens?

Dr. Darko: Locum tenens, which means “place holder” in Latin, is a way for physicians to fill the place of another physician. That might mean helping out a rural community that doesn’t have enough physicians or filling in for someone who goes on maternity leave, needs a vacation or just needs a weekend off. I even spent 10 months building a practice for an incoming physician who was finishing her residency. One of the perks that I didn't expect with locum tenens, and I've been doing it since I graduated from residency, is being able to help my colleagues out. We know that physicians are feeling overwhelmed right now, and this is a way for me to help my colleagues find time to take care of themselves, be with their families and refresh and recharge, while allowing me the flexibility to avoid burnout myself.

Q: During the inaugural Dr. Meta Christy presentation at Educating Leaders 2022, the AACOM Annual Conference, you spoke about the importance of mentorship. How has finding a mentor impacted your career, and what advice would you share with others who are searching for a mentor?

Dr. Darko: Having a mentor really changed my trajectory. I probably would have still gotten into medical school without one, but I don't know that I would have had the same enriching experiences. I met my first mentor at the Student National Medical Association conference about 20 years ago. He solidified not just my passion for osteopathic medicine but also that being a physician means more than just seeing patients. It means having an impact on people's lives, and it doesn't always have to be a clinical or health impact. When I met him, his name is Dale Sanders, he said, “I will help you, but I only ask you one thing in return: to help other pre-meds once you're done.” I agreed, not thinking that I would be here 20 years later doing exactly that. He showed me there are so many ways to help people in this life. We often peg ourselves into this idea that our mentor has to be a physician, or has to work in our specialty of interest, and that is such a narrow way of looking at things. I encourage students to realize that their mentors could be medical school recruiters, their professors or their doctors, even ones who don’t practice the type of medicine they’re interested in, and they don’t need to choose just one. Just yesterday during the medical school info session, I announced to the pre-meds that I would be launching a new initiative called MedEq Mentors, a program under Pre-med Strategies, Inc., to help students meet potential mentors. Oftentimes we tell students to find a mentor, but they are, one, very scared, and two, don't really know how to do it. Once you give them the tools they need, they can potentially do so many great things and we need to give them that opportunity.

Q: Last year, the nation’s colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs) unanimously committed to a first-of-its-kind effort to address systemic inequity and increase medical student diversity. What advice would you share with COMs to help them recruit and retain more diverse medical students?

Dr. Darko: First, realize that there is systemic inequity across the board, not just in medicine. You're going to see systemic inequities pretty much everywhere, and you have to build a system such that inequity cannot thrive, where it will not be tolerated. I talked about this on the Dr. Meta Christy panel at Educating Leaders. It's important to understand that while medical students have a great impact on the culture of an institution, it is up to the institution to build an equitable system. Your practices have to reflect what you're trying to build. The hiring processes, evaluations and curriculum should all be inclusive and should help students realize why inequities exist. Medical school staff and administrators also need their own curriculum. Everyone should be on board, and it should not be just an academic exercise. It should be an institution-wide obligation.

Q: This July, AACOM launched a critically important new program to equip third-year osteopathic medical students with the skills they need to treat more diverse patient populations upon entering the medical profession. Why is it essential for DOs to learn about health equity and health disparities?

Dr. Darko: It's important for DOs to learn about health equity and health disparities because of our commitment to primary care. We all know that osteopathic medicine has a huge emphasis on primary care and that's usually where patients enter the healthcare system. Without understanding what health equity means and what health disparities exist, we're going to miss a lot. Whole communities and whole families can be affected. This knowledge can help us have a very direct impact on making sure that health resources are distributed equitably. It's also important because we know there is a dearth of physicians in certain communities. It's our responsibility as a profession to ensure that those inequities and disparities get addressed appropriately. I’m all about awareness, but we have to make sure we move beyond splash campaigns and take actionable steps to decrease negative impacts. Learning about health inequities, especially during the third year of medical school, will help students on wards for the first time really understand what it is that they're seeing. Sometimes our own worldviews prevent us from understanding a patient’s actions. It's not that patients don't want to be healthy. It’s that they also come in with their own notions and their own mistrust, and it's up to us as educated medical professionals to help our patients understand our treatment plans and to give them space to communicate. You would be surprised how people open up to you. It is a privilege to help people who are in their most vulnerable state achieve health. Sometimes it's easy for us to go on autopilot and just say, “You need to do this, you need to do that,” but you have to understand that you are asking someone to come into their most personal space—their body—and you need to be patient and understanding. If you understand health inequities and health disparities, you will be more empathetic and more equipped not just to help the patient in front of you but also, potentially, whole communities.

Q: Today, women make up more than 50 percent of osteopathic medical school matriculants, yet discrimination against women in medicine remains, despite studies showing that patients treated by female physicians experience better health outcomes. What support from the osteopathic medical education community have you found pivotal throughout your career, and what additional support could osteopathic medical educators provide to women in medicine?

Dr. Darko: Interestingly enough, I also host a podcast called Docs Outside the Box with my husband and this was a topic he recently discussed with a physician recruiter. While he was preparing for that interview, I said to him, “You do know that women make less than men but have better outcomes, right?” The interview he was preparing for was on gender pay inequity, and that fact surprised him. This is unfortunately a conversation that I don't think is had enough. We as women bring a lot of value to medicine, and we're not compensated equitably for that value. I am inspired, though, by the history of osteopathic medicine. Dr. Meta Christy becoming the first Black female physician shows that this profession, from its onset, has seen that medicine doesn't have to be white male dominated. The first osteopathic class of medical students included women. When A.T. Still was breaking the mold, he didn't just break the mold with MD versus DO, he addressed gender inequities as well. As far as the support that osteopathic medicine can provide today, helping address the gender pay gap is something the osteopathic profession can be more vocal about. I was saying to my husband just last night that the medical profession cannot only be about treating patients, it must also be about caring for doctors. Not being compensated fairly weighs on you. We talked about physician burnout earlier, and when you address the pay gap, women will feel seen. Offering scholarships for women going into medicine is important, and so is understanding that women physicians face different obstacles when we start families, which can be used as an excuse for the pay gap because people will say, women take more time off, and I think, yeah because we're growing the population. You know you wouldn't be here without us, right? There’s no limit to what we can do to give women in medicine the recognition we deserve.

AACOM thanks Dr. Darko for her significant contributions to osteopathic medicine and her commitment to supporting, recruiting and retaining students and women in medicine, especially those from populations who are traditionally underrepresented in the field.