There's something special about a new class of health sciences students. You can see it in the eyes of the eager students running to class, in their whispered conversations in the library and even sense the pride they take in their scrubs and white coats. There's a passion that goes beyond learning. These students are taking on the most complex of subjects—humanity. They fully understand how the decisions and actions they are trained to make will impact human lives.

These students are not here by accident. They worked hard for their spots in ours or any other highly competitive health professions program. For most, there was a spark, a moment or a person that showed them they had what it takes for this long and grueling path. Unfortunately, not every student suited for this calling is motivated by circumstances of birth and luck. Not everyone gets that spark at the right moment or the guidance and encouragement to move forward.

The result is a healthcare workforce that doesn't always look like the population it serves. Some minorities are not fully represented in the student bodies of many health professions schools. Similarly, low-income students are much less likely to pursue a health care career. We know these disparities can be overcome because the long-standing gender gap in medical schools is gone. Women now make up 50.7 percent of first-year med students.

Diversity in the health professions isn't just about equity and fairness, it improves health outcomes. Some research suggests that minority patients have better outcomes when the professionals providing their care look (and talk) like them. Similarly, we know that students tend to return to the communities where they were raised, helping to address workforce shortages in poor rural and minority communities. For Philadelphia, a majority-minority city where only 34.6 percent of the population is white, non-Hispanic, and the poverty rate is 25.7 percent, a more diverse healthcare workforce may help us address our stubbornly poor health outcomes.

To help ensure that more underrepresented students learn about opportunities in the health sciences, many of the region's health education institutions run health professions pipeline programs designed to excite and inspire disadvantaged young people from the city and the surrounding areas.

Thomas Jefferson University, where we work, has an outreach effort to Philadelphia's public middle and high schools and local colleges. It includes the Saturday Academy where seventh and eighth graders dive deep into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics with hands-on, real-world activities. The Academy's primary goal is to spark a broader passion for science. High school students in the Future Health Professionals Program work closely with Jefferson clinical faculty and students to get hands-on experience in health professions like occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing and medicine. They practice skills from these disciplines in our simulation facilities and laboratories. The STEP-UP Program helps college undergraduates making important career decisions learn about these fields through engaging activities and observation of professionals at work.

These programs are possible because of the generosity of faculty, students and staff, who volunteer thousands of hours each year as teachers and mentors. For many of these eager young people, our mentors are the only adults they know who work in these careers, opening a door onto a world of possibilities they may not know even existed, let alone navigate. Many mentors work with their students long after they complete the program.

The outcomes of these outreach efforts are likely similar to our companion institutions. When given the exposure and encouragement, students in these pipeline programs apply to health professions schools and go on to become successful healthcare providers.

Collectively, everyone benefits when these efforts produce a more diverse applicant pool, but the pipeline effort goes beyond boosting enrollment numbers. Instead, this is an opportunity for faculty, staff and current students to pay it forward for Philadelphia—to help light the spark in young people as someone did for us years earlier. An equally important goal of this effort is to help build a healthcare workforce that reflects the diversity that is Philadelphia. We all do better when young people of every background develop a love for science and a passion for impacting human lives.

Drew Harris, DPM, MPH is a member of the Inquirer's Health Advisory Panel, healthcare consultant, assistant professor at the Jefferson University College of Population Health and director of the Scholarly Inquiry-Health Policy program at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College.  Cecilia M. McCormick, J.D. is Vice Provost of Academic Strategy & Special Programs and Executive Director of Pipeline Programs at Thomas Jefferson University.