Dr. Ja'Pel Sumpter's mother, who gave birth to Sumpter as a teenager, encouraged her daughter to aim high while continuing to push forward with her own education. Sumpter's mother earned her Ph.D. the week before Sumpter completed medical school. (Photo by Sarah Pack)

Dr. Ja’Pel Sumpter’s mother, who gave birth to Sumpter as a teenager, encouraged her daughter to aim high while continuing to push forward with her own education. Sumpter’s mother earned her Ph.D. the week before Sumpter completed medical school. (Photo by Sarah Pack)

Ja’Pel Sumpter, M.D., a graduate of the Medical University of South Carolina, knows she’s one of the lucky ones. As the only child of a teenage mother, Sumpter spent most of her childhood with her grandmother, Carrie Worthy. Surrounded by poverty, her mother, Karen, wanted to create a better future for her family. She encouraged her daughter to aim high. Sumpter did, and is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University.

But Sumpter has more on her mind than her own future. She wants to help others who, like her, come from disadvantaged backgrounds. So she and her best friend, Cynthia Grady, M.D., have created a website to help undergraduates at small colleges navigate the complicated process of qualifying for and applying to medical school. They’re calling it The Paved Path.

The website has the support of key leaders at MUSC, which has a long-term commitment to educating more African-American physicians. In fact, outside of historically black colleges and universities, MUSC leads the nation in graduating black male physicians. The chief executive officer of the Medical Center and vice president for Clinical Operations, Pat Cawley, M.D., said Sumpter’s website has the potential to further improve the diversity of the physician workforce. “I was happy to help support Dr. Sumpter’s innovative project through mentoring as well as financial support,” Cawley said. “It’s in sync with our MUSC goals and I believe that because of Dr. Sumpter’s enthusiasm and dedication, the project will be successful.”

Sumpter hopes so. She knows from experience how tough it can be to apply to medical school, so there should be plenty of people who could use the website’s help. “Often when you’re an undergraduate at a smaller school, you receive guidance from faculty on how to get into medical school who have never been to medical school or even through the application process,” Sumpter said.

The Medical University of South Carolina 186th Commencement. Dr. Ja'Pel Sumpter graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2015.

The Medical University of South Carolina 186th Commencement. Dr. Ja’Pel Sumpter graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2015.

Sumpter got through that process with the help of a support system she and Grady were part of as undergraduates at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black public research university in North Carolina. Both were majoring in scientific areas and wanted to go to medical school. They became close friends with several other students who had the same goal. They encouraged each other as they kept their grades up, did volunteer work, studied for the Medical College Admission Test and wrote application essays. While Sumpter wound up at MUSC and Grady went to the University of Pittsburgh, they’ve continued to work together to help other Winston-Salem students get into medical school. That work led to an idea.

“We said, we should create a website,” Sumpter said. “The idea grew more and more and finally we came up with The Paved Path.”

Dr. Cynthia Grady

Dr. Cynthia Grady 

The website, pavedpath.musc.edu, launched January 11, 2016. For now, it focuses on undergraduates who want to go to medical school, although Sumpter plans to expand it in the future to help students interested in other fields such as dentistry and nursing. The current website lets pre-medical students create profiles to showcase their accomplishments for minority affairs and admission offices, follow events at medical schools they’re interested in, let those schools know about their interest and get in touch with current medical students to get advice.

The world is changing, and Sumpter said the medical profession needs to reflect the patients it will serve. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts the U.S. will become a minority-majority nation in 2043. In other words, while non-Hispanic whites will still be the largest group, they will no longer make up a majority of the country’s population. “African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population, yet we’re only 3 percent of the doctors in the nation. That needs to change,” Sumpter said. “We need more doctors who can relate to their patients through cultural sensitivity and cultural competency. Having those qualities will definitely aid in providing the best patient care. This website will help bring more people who embody those qualities into the field of medicine.”

Sumpter said it’s important to reach students early. “There isn’t a lack of underrepresented minorities who are interested in pursing medicine. Oftentimes, they aren’t properly prepared for the competitive process of applying to medical school.” She wants to reach them when they’re just starting as undergraduates, helping freshmen interested in medicine build their applications and get feedback from schools they’re interested in. “That gives students more time to identify and strengthen weak areas in their application, ultimately making them more competitive. That will help increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine,” Sumpter said.