Medical School Diversity

New medical school’s founding dean champions diversity and equity

Andis Robeznieks , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

New medical school’s founding dean champions diversity and equity

Jul 8, 2024

Much is expected of the new Xavier Ochsner College of Medicine. Also known as XOCOM, the school aims to help alleviate Louisiana’s severe physician shortage, boost diversity in the physician workforce, reduce health inequities and revitalize downtown New Orleans.

The new institution, a collaborative effort between Ochsner Health and Xavier University of Louisiana, does not have a projected opening date. That will come after it earns accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which is typically a three- to five-year process. But it does have a location, the 26-story Benson Tower, which already houses Ochsner Health’s administrative offices.

And a founding dean has been named, Leonardo Seoane, MD, executive vice president and chief academic officer at Ochsner Health.

A Cuban American and a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist, Dr. Seoane serves on the National Hispanic Medical Association’s board of directors. 

Along with a new medical school at Morgan State University, it will join the nation’s four existing historically Black medical schools: Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. It will be the first in the Gulf South.

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Xavier University of Louisiana President C. Reynold Verret, PhD, a biochemist and immunologist, nominated Dr. Seoane to be the medical school’s first dean.

About 3,300 students are enrolled at Xavier, which is a national leader in science, technology engineering and math (STEM). And, despite its relatively small size, the school is traditionally among the top producers of Black medical students and medical school graduates.

The new medical school is the latest and the largest of recent collaborations between the university and the health system. This includes the Ochsner-Xavier Institute for Health Equity and Research, which seeks to improve overall health for Louisiana residents while reducing health inequities and developing innovative health care delivery models.

A catalyst for the institute was a 2020 study, in which Dr. Seoane was senior author, demonstrated the disproportionate impact COVID-19 had on Black populations in Louisiana.

During a recent interview, Dr. Seoane discussed how plans for the medical school came together and his immediate and long-term goals for the institution. 

Leonardo Seoane, MD
Leonardo Seoane, MD, FACP

AMA: Please describe where the idea for the medical school originated and how it came together.

Dr. Seoane: It came from both organizations working in parallel and then coming together. Xavier is the only private Catholic HBCU [historically black college and university] in the country, and they're recognized for longstanding excellence in STEM.

They wear the distinction of being one of the top universities in the nation for placing Black and African American student into medical school. When you consider Xavier has an enrollment of about 3,300 students, training more Black and African American physicians positions than universities with 35,000 to 45,000 students, it’s quite a feat.

So, they had been thinking for some time about how to extend beyond premed and the sciences and start a medical school.

On the Ochsner side, we started a regional campus with the University of Queensland 15 years ago. We take American citizens who spend their first two years in Brisbane, Australia, and they come back and do year three and four at Ochsner. And that's been very successful.

We also have 34 accredited graduate medical education programs training more than 330 residents and fellows. And we've been doing that since the 1940s.

We saw in front of us this issue of not having the appropriate diversity among physicians, and we live in a very diverse part of the country. And we felt it acutely that although 13.6% of the U.S. population or African American, they only make up 5.7% of physicians. And while 19% of the population is Hispanic, we only make up 6.9% of the physicians.

In 2017, we decided to say, why don't we work with Xavier? They're in our backyard. They have this longstanding history of excellence and working for health equity.

First, we decided to date before we got married.

We've had clinical training sites for their pharmacy school all the way back to the 1980s. We asked, “What are some other important areas we can focus on that also have a significant lack of diversity?”

We started with the physician assistant program, where the workforce is 76.2% white. Now we've graduated our third class of physician assistants with approximately 40 per class.

We then moved to genetic counseling where the workforce is 87% white. If all goes well, our genetic counseling master's program will be taking its first students in the fall of 2024.

The success of those partnerships, and then the pandemic, really accelerated our work in this area.

The pandemic elucidated the health inequities that exist in our country. Dr. Eboni Price-Haywood, and our bioinformatic colleagues published a New England Journal of Medicine article on the topic in May 2020. New Orleans was one of the first epicenters for COVID-19 in the United States. We documented that there were a disproportionate number of hospitalized Black people with COVID in Louisiana, and we were able to publish that disproportionate impact the virus had on that population.

Then that led us to say: Hey, what are we going to do in this health equity space? How do we accelerate that work?

And that led to the Ochsner Xavier Institute for Health Equity and Research looking into the drivers of health inequities and then solutions.

President Verret, to his credit with his vision on the Xavier side, and Pete November as CEO of Ochsner on the Ochsner side, both realized that’s now's the time to do it.

There's an incredible need. We're not going to really address and meet our health equity goals unless we build a medical school that's explicitly dedicated to training diverse physicians who represent the communities they serve.

AMA: How was the site chosen?

Dr. Seoane: One of my previous hats was vice chancellor of academics for the LSU [Louisiana State University] Health Science Center in Shreveport. We built a new medical education building from scratch for around $80 million.

New Orleans, like many downtown areas, did not have all its workers come back. So, we had space at a downtown building, and so, instead of spending $80 million to build a new building, we could renovate and have a state-of-the-art medical school for under $15 million.

In the process, we can help revitalize the area by bringing 400 medical students plus faculty and staff downtown.

AMA: Are there any particulars you can tell us about when the school will open, how many students you'll have?

Dr. Seoane: The next steps are to finish building the management team, name the associate deans and start the LCME accreditation process, which usually takes three to five years. We also need to start building renovations.

And only when we achieve preliminary accreditation, can we speak about start dates and size of class.

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AMA: Will you have a specific focus, such as primary care or a specialty that meets the immediate needs of the community?

Dr. Seoane: Every other year, the Association of American Medical Colleges puts out their physician shortage projections. This year’s report projected a shortage of up to 86,000 physicians by 2036. But that shortage is not homogenous throughout the U.S. It’s more acutely felt in Southern states and rural areas.

In fact, a previous report had Louisiana, by 2030, being the third-worst state for physician shortage ratio, defined as physician jobs per 100,000 people, with Mississippi and New Mexico having the worst.

While primary care and psychiatry are two areas where we have the largest shortages, we really have a shortage across all specialties.

We also have a shortage of diversity across all specialties.

Clearly, primary care is something we're going to emphasize, however, we really need diversity representation among other types of physicians, too—like our neurosurgeons, dermatologists, and pulmonary-critical care doctors like me.

The medical school is going to have a focus on training clinician scientists as well.

We have a lack of diversity among medical researchers. That affects the design of studies because we don't have the right representation to ask the right questions or to recruit diverse patients.

With XOCOM, we will look at everything through the lens of health equity. We want to make sure our graduates understand the social drivers of health and are leaders in solving for health equity.

Because the explicit mission is to train more diverse physicians to represent the communities they serve, community engagement and partnership will also be a big part of the medical school.

AMA: What were your thoughts when you heard the news about your being named the inaugural dean?

Dr. Seoane: I was extremely humbled, excited and honored. I'm a first-generation immigrant and worked two jobs to pay my way through undergrad and medical school. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college, and my career has been dedicated to medical education. So, I see this as the capstone of my career, to be the founding dean of such an incredible college.

AMA: What are you planning to say in your first commencement address?

Dr. Seoane: There is power in diversity and having a college of medicine that says you are welcomed—regardless of your race or ethnicity—and that we honor and encourage diverse thought and opinions. This first graduating class will embody and be the hope for the future that will truly bring change and address health inequities in the U.S.

That's an incredible responsibility I'm placing on graduates’ shoulders. But that is the reason they came to the Xavier Ochsner College of Medicine, and we have spent four years preparing them to be leaders to move the U.S. health system forward and spend a life in service of others.

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