LAS VEGAS (AP) — Malcolm Douglas remembers how the close relationship he had with his pediatrician growing up with a single mother in Brooklyn, New York, helped him feel safe and respected.

“He kind of guided me toward a career in medicine, throughout my schooling, he pushed me more toward the sciences,” Douglas said. “He helped me develop my passion for medicine.”

Today the 27-year-old is a student in physician assistant studies at Touro University Nevada in suburban Henderson. He told the Las Vegas Sun he hopes to someday work in a community that serves low-income neighborhoods.

What’s even more important, he said, is to have a well-represented health care workforce that reflects these communities. It’s something he feels strongly about as an African American in the health care field.

“If patients see someone who looks just like them, from the same community and same ethnic background, it makes them feel safe,” Douglas said. “Especially if they’re younger, they can look up to them as a role model.”

Medical schools across the United States lag behind the racial composition of the country with the number of black, Hispanic and Native American students mostly unchanged between 2002 and 2017, according to the Journal of the American Association.

More than 70% of medical school students in the United States are white or Asian, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Black students make up 8.2% of the total, Hispanic or Latino students make up 6.2% and Native American students make up 0.2%.

That’s why medical schools like Touro are trying to expand efforts in the diversity pipeline.

“There are a lot of barriers that exist right now, like speaking a different language or having a different culture,” said Tava McGinty-Jimenez, Touro director of admissions.

The ethnic diversity of Touro’s almost 1,500 student body is 47% white, 30% Asian, 8% Hispanic, 4% black or African American and 1% native Hawaiian or Pacific islander, according to Touro’s 2018 census.

While Touro already had high racial diversity, there’s still room for improvement, as the school tries to better reflect Clark County’s population in its student body, McGinty-Jimenez said.

The 2010 U.S. Census put the racial makeup of the county at about 61% white, 8.7% Asian, more than 29 percent Hispanic or Latino, 10.5% African American and 0.7% Pacific islander.

“In past years, our efforts focused on a broader scope with overarching ideas of diversity,” McGinty-Jimenez said. “Now we have a more in-depth diversity policy targeting specific populations in the county.”

These new policies target gender and economic background as much as race and ethnicity, she said. For example, there are just as few men in occupational therapy as there are women in neurosurgery.

“Each program has their own versions of diversity,” she said.

Closing diversity gaps begins with showing students while they’re young that a career in medicine is possible, McGinty-Jimenez said.

The school is reaching out to racially and economically diverse middle and high schools in and around Las Vegas through its early exposure program to educate students about the path toward a medical degree.

The program gives students a campus tour, hands-on experience at the school’s labs and their own set up scrubs for the day.

Touro has also partnered with Nevada State College to develop Three Plus One, a program allowing students to simultaneously obtain a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in medical health science from Touro in their fourth year.

McGinty-Jimenez said Touro was exposing the opportunity to students as early as high school. The program will be offered during the fall 2021.

The School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is already one of the most diverse in the nation, said Dr. Mario Gaspar De Alba, associate dean for diversity and inclusion. Outreach to minorities includes open houses, application workshops and conferences.

“Most underrepresented minorities don’t have mentors or have anyone they know who can help them figure out the process, which is where the workshops are helpful,” Gaspar De Alba said.

UNLV’s headcount indicates 11 Latino or Hispanic students in the medical school’s 60-student class of 2021. Six students re African American and one is Native American.

But it’s not enough to simply diversify the student body. Schools are also striving to have equal student achievement among all demographics and backgrounds, McGinty-Jimenez said.

“Our Office of Academic Services and Institutional Support is free for all students to help them with test-taking skills and better managing course loads,” she said. “If students are facing challenges, we provide something for that.”

UNLV also has dedicated academic advisers and student groups catering to students of all backgrounds, Gaspar De Alba said, and administrators want the faculty to reflect the school’s higher-than-average minority population.

“To see there are faculty members they are working with that look like them encourages them along that profession,” he said.