Dr Berlacher | UPMC Life Changer

As the daughter and granddaughter of cardiologists, Katie Berlacher, MD, was around the specialty her entire life.

But when she became a cardiologist, she realized her situation was unique.

“When I got into cardiology, I didn’t realize how few women there are and how few other underrepresented minorities, and how lucky I was to just have access to all the things that I had access to,” says Dr. Berlacher, director, UPMC Magee-Womens Heart Program. “For a very, very, very long time, I’ve felt that my responsibility moving forward is to be able to give back.”

Seeing the need for more diversity, Dr. Berlacher and a friend partnered to create the I Look Like a Cardiologist program.

I Look Like a Cardiologist pairs high school students with experts from the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute. The students learn about the field of cardiology through the program, which is open to all genders, races, sexualities, and backgrounds. The goal is to inspire the students to become cardiologists themselves.

Hundreds of high school students have gone through the program since it started. Students from the first cohort have reached the age at which they’re now applying for medical school.

“This is a really special program for us, and we’re just really excited that people have liked it and that it’s continued,” Dr. Berlacher says. “It’s something that makes us really, really proud to do.”

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‘We Really Need to Inspire the Workforce’

Racial, gender, ethnic, and other disparities exist in cardiology. According to a July 2023 study in Current Problems in Cardiology, almost two-thirds of U.S. cardiologists are white.

Only 13% of practicing cardiologists are women, the study reported. Those disparities may lead to gaps in care.

Dr. Berlacher co-founded I Look Like a Cardiologist in 2018 with Diana Rodgers. The program focused at first on increasing gender diversity in cardiology. But they quickly realized the need for diversity in cardiology encompassed much more.

“We started to think about gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other things like what type of family you grew up in,” Dr. Berlacher says.

“Has anybody in your family ever gone to college? Because if not, that’s really hard. Do you live out in a super rural area where you don’t have access to counselors and whatnot?

“So, those were the things that caused us to think about diversity with a broader lens.”

The program focuses on students in grades 10 through 12. This age range is important because many people begin planning their future career paths while in high school.

“Kids in high school don’t always get exposed to the field of medicine, much less the field of cardiology based on where they grow up, how they grow up, who they know growing up,” Dr. Berlacher says. “And, so, in addition to increasing the diversity within the workforce, we really just need to inspire the workforce.”

‘This Really, Really Heartwarming Experience’

At first, I Look Like a Cardiologist consisted of an in-person, four- to five-hour class. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed it from in-person to virtual.

That change actually benefited the program. Dr. Berlacher says I Look Like a Cardiologist can now reach a wider group of people who can attend virtual classes.

Students in 10th through 12th grades can apply for the program beginning in the fall. Classes begin in January.

I Look Like a Cardiologist consists of four 75-minute weeknight sessions. Each session includes a keynote speaker who discusses how and why they became a cardiologist. Students also discuss cardiovascular issues that they see in their community and learn the basics of cardiology.

“I would like to be a forensic pathologist,” says Lascionna Payne, a high school junior who participated in the program in 2023. “It’s prepped me to understand what it’s like to be in medicine, how the cardiovascular system works, how cardiology is as a profession, and how I can use that anatomical sense to help me in forensic pathology.

“My advice to any child or any person who would like to do the program is to do it because you don’t know where it would take you.”

About 55 students take part in I Look Like a Cardiologist. Each student gets paired with a practicing cardiologist from the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

“The way the program is set up, it allows you to have one-on-one time with the young high school students and develop a relationship that can go beyond the program itself,” says A.J. Conrad Smith, MD, director, cardiac catheterization laboratories, UPMC Presbyterian, and associate chief for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, UPMC Division of Cardiology.

“Our ability to relate to these students, our ability to encourage them to build the pipeline — that will make sure that down the road, there will be more and more people that look like us. All of those things will lead to a better Heart and Vascular Institute as we deal with diverse populations.”

About 45 fellows and faculty members participate and serve as mentors to the high school students, Dr. Berlacher says.

“We’re really fortunate at UPMC to have a wide range of race, ethnicity, gender, sexualities, backgrounds, upbringings, that students can see and hopefully see that they are like them, and say, ‘Oh, I can do that, too,'” Dr. Berlacher says.

Each session of I Look Like a Cardiologist includes time spent in smaller groups of students and their mentors. This allows students to meet both other mentors and other students who have become interested in cardiology. After each session, students write a paragraph reflecting on what they discussed.

Dr. Berlacher says the program is a group effort made possible by the fellows and faculty who participate.

“It’s been a really wonderful thing,” Dr. Berlacher says. “I didn’t realize going into it how much of a wellness program it would be for the fellows and the faculty. It has turned into this thing that everybody is like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait.’ It’s just this really, really heartwarming experience.”

‘Giving Back to the Place in Which We Live’

Dr. Berlacher says she likes to “dream big.” But even she didn’t anticipate the level of interest that I Look Like a Cardiologist would spark. This isn’t just locally but nationwide.

She’s been fielding questions from other UPMC specialties and other health care providers interested in starting similar programs since the program began. To that end, Rodgers wrote a how-to guide to answer common questions. And Dr. Berlacher shares the program’s lesson plans, case studies, and other reference materials.

“When many other programs have come to us and talked about how we do it, their biggest barrier is, ‘How do you get people to sign up for this?’ And that’s actually never been hard for us,” Dr. Berlacher says. “We just have really good humans here who want to be a part of things that are community-oriented.

“It is purposeful that we attract fellows and faculty that really want to give back. We feel that’s part of our mission. That’s part of our responsibility and commitment to being here, is giving back to the place in which we live.”

Part of that mission of giving back is improving the health of the community.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Through I Look Like a Cardiologist, students learn more than just about how to become a cardiologist.

They also learn about some of the factors that put people at risk of heart disease and discuss important topics like diet and exercise. They can then take what they learn from the program and apply it in their own homes and communities.

In that way, the mission of I Look Like a Cardiologist goes beyond increasing diversity in cardiology. It also focuses on improving the health of the community as a whole.

“We feel strongly about the health of western Pennsylvania and all of the surrounding areas,” Dr. Berlacher says. “If we give back to and really elevate the health of these communities, we know that it will go far for many generations to come.”

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.