Students at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine have launched a new outreach program to recruit more underrepresented minorities to the school.

Created with the support of school officials, the program is designed to get students involved in a recruitment process that has long struggled to live up to its mandate. Part of the school’s mission statement, after all, is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine, but just 40 of Touro’s 537 students last school year self-identified as Black or African-American on medical school questionnaires. Only 32 were Latino.

The program, Creating Osteopathic Minority Physicians who Achieve Scholastic Success (COMPASS), sends minority student representatives out with recruiters in the hope that prospective students feel more comfortable approaching current students of similar backgrounds. COMPASS also connects students already in medical school with established osteopathic physicians in the community so that students of all backgrounds have access to role models and mentorship opportunities.

Second-year medical student Jemima Akinsanya, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in the United States, said it struck her last year that the school could be doing more to reach out to minority students. After bringing her ideas to the deans, she started going to medical fairs and getting classmates involved in the effort.

“So far, the feedback has been really good,” she said, saying that medical school hopefuls feel more at ease talking with people they view as their peers. “There have already been students from fairs who are contacting me, asking, ‘I’m thinking about taking this course’ or ‘Should I take my MCAT again?’” She tells them that she isn’t an admissions officer but that she can give her opinion and share real-life examples from her time at the school.

Students and administrators say the challenge is as much to spread information about osteopathic medicine as it is about Touro itself.

“I think a lot of minority students don’t even know that D.O. [Doctorate of Osteopathy] is an option,” Akinsanya said, distinguishing her degree of osteopathy from the more common medical doctor (M.D.) degree medical students receive.

Director of Admissions Emil Ruiz said a lack of knowledge about osteopathy in general is an additional barrier among the many other ones faced by minority students considering medical school. Some of those barriers include a lack of role models in medicine and the financial burdens of test preparation, applications and tuition.

“I do a lot of work on discussing diversity, but it’s more about defining what is an osteopathic physician,” Ruiz said. “A lot of them don’t realize what osteopathic medicine is.”

The field, which emerged in the Midwest during the late 19th century, emphasizes a holistic, hands-on approach to practicing medicine and includes about one-fifth of medical students nationwide.

Touro, located in the heart of Harlem on 125th Street, just across from the Apollo Theater, has worked to diversify its student body since the school opened its doors in 2007. Admissions officers seek out minority applicants at recruitment fairs and open houses and through national networks of career advisors at colleges with large minority populations. The school also ushers many minority students each year through a master’s program designed to help those on the cusp of getting into medical school up their chances of acceptance for the following year.

But try as it might, Touro’s student population is far from reflecting the diversity that literally surrounds the school’s campus. Classes, for the most part, have disproportionately large numbers of white and Asian students, even though a majority of central Harlem residents identify as African-American.

A 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that while osteopathic schools have placed more graduates into underserved areas, traditional, or allopathic, schools have recruited more underrepresented minority students.

Enrollment data from the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine shows that nearly 70 percent of students in osteopathic medical colleges identify as white.

Minority students say the lack of diversity in medical schools later affects patients who may feel their needs aren’t being met by a homogenous health care system. With this in mind, Touro created a mandatory cultural competency class in which students hear directly from patients from the Harlem area. Ruiz said the school also makes an effort to hire faculty members from diverse backgrounds.

COMPASS aims to strengthen many of the school’s already-existing recruitment strategies by pairing them with student-led initiatives.

For now, the program is focused on linking schools and physicians in the New York area, but Aldo Manresa, president of the Student Government Association, hopes the new program will spur more student-led diversity efforts at medical schools across the country. Sharing the program with the minority affairs section of the American Medical Association is one path of action he’s considering.

“I would love to present COMPASS,” he said. “I think it’s a great program where other schools can reach out to local colleges and present on increasing awareness of minority physicians who have done great things.”