Dean K. Matsuda, MD, entertains questions from visiting schoolchildren.
Courtesy of Hippocrates Circle Program archives, 2008


Published 6/1/2009
Dean K. Matsuda, MD

Hippocrates Circle Program introduces medicine to minorities

Volunteers help motivate children to consider medical careers

The honorary presidential guest address given by Douglas Jackson, MD, at the 2008 Western Orthopaedic Association annual meeting in Hawaii triggered my involvement in the Hippocrates Circle Program (HCP). In his address, “Volunteerism and Diversity: An Orthopaedist’s Responsibility,” Dr. Jackson emphasized that the medical field is losing many potential talented children because of our failing school system, which has the greatest negative impact on Hispanic and African-American populations.

It was a moment of quiet epiphany for me. I realized I couldn’t change the school system, but I could perhaps help influence and motivate schoolchildren in my surrounding community by stepping up my involvement in the HCP.

What is the Hippocrates Circle Program?
Founded by Ricardo Sistos, MD, in 2000, the HCP began as a proactive, physician-run mentoring program for underprivileged middle-school students in San Diego. Dr. Sistos, a family physician, was himself a Mexican immigrant who experienced firsthand the struggles of growing up in a poor family. He recalls a pivotal moment in his life when a doctor encouraged him to become a physician.

The goal of the HCP is to encourage minority students and their parents to set academic goals and to inspire them to believe that they too can have a career in medicine. The program operates through several Kaiser Permanente medical centers in Southern California. In its first year, 25 students participated. Last year, through the efforts of medical providers and volunteers at multiple facilities, that number rose to 589. To date, 2,300 students have graduated from the HCP.

I joined several physicians of different races, nationalities, backgrounds, and specialties in volunteering at the Hippocrates Circle program in West Los Angeles, under the direction of Erique Emel, MD. Middle-school children from urban schools are given the opportunity to participate. Those who express an interest and have support from their parent/guardian and teacher are introduced to a side of the medical field that they might not otherwise see.

How the program works
We initially met with approximately 60 schoolchildren and their parents. They were given an introduction to various fields of medicine as well as a chance to ask any of us about our personal journey to our chosen career.

The following week, the children toured our medical center. Half of the group participated in an interactive mock “code blue” on one of their fellow students. I introduced the other half to orthopaedic surgery with a discussion on fractures, sprains, knee injuries, and tibial nailing.

The session ended with giggles and questions as the students examined my surgical scars from anterior cruciate ligament reconstructive surgery. Students then gathered in the orthopaedic clinic to have casts applied and removed.

The medical school tour was another highlight for the students, who had the opportunity to walk through the University of Southern California (USC) Keck Medical School and the USC Keck Medical Center. They had a chance to interact with the assistant dean for the office of diversity as well as with several medical students. They learned about the academic requirements and personal and social sacrifices necessary to gain entrance into medical school.

Students also learned the difference between medical school and residency, family practice and neurosurgery, clinical medicine and medical research. A discussion about alternate pathways to medical school (such as junior college) was followed by a presentation by a financial aid counselor who covered available options (many of which were new to me).

In essence, the HCP provides a road map (with direct and alternate routes), some tools, and loads of encouragement to assist the parents and their children who decide on a medical career.

The fourth and final session was the HCP graduation dinner held at a local restaurant. The students, their parents, and key liaisons such as the principals and counselors from the two elementary schools attended. The dinner gave us the opportunity to stress our message: “You can be a physician someday.” At the end, students left with a graduation certificate and a stethoscope. Perhaps a few also took with them a realizable dream to someday become a physician.

HCP challenges parents to support children who desire to pursue a medical career. It encourages students, in turn, to acknowledge their parents for caring. At least it’s now on their radar screen—and mine.

Dean K. Matsuda, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in West Los Angeles and a board member of Orthopaedics Overseas. He can be reached at