Latinas in Medicine: Needed, Sought, Welcome

According to the latest figures from the American Medical Association, less than 3 percent of physicians in the United States are Hispanic. Only 3.4 percent of those are Latinas. With 12 percent of the population now identifying themselves as Hispanic, it’s clear that a need exists to promote careers in the health care fields to Hispanics, especially Latinas.

Dr. Elena Rios

Dr. Elena Ríos is president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. “Our organization was started because we realized there was a void in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “We’re the first century of doctors to come from the medical schools.” She said that “part of our goal was to change medical education policies.”

In the 1960s, said Ríos, the low numbers of Hispanics in the medical professions was “already recognized by the United States.” However, at that time, there was no minority health office. Ríos attended college beginning in 1973 and said, “by that time, the minority medical schools were started.” She mentioned financial assistance, in particular the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as being a boost to Hispanics in general.

As a teenager growing up in East Los Angeles, Ríos attended a Catholic girls high school where she won a scholarship based on her skills in math. “Coming from a background of middle lower class ... I was part of the first generation going into higher education with parents who didn’t go to college,” said Ríos. She describes today a “large lower-class Latino” demographic with proven abilities academically, “very interested in learning,” but with “no family support in terms of ‘how do you study.’” Ríos had a different example at home. Her mother was studying to be a nurse as she was growing up, and as a teenager, she worked as a messenger in a local hospital.

However, Ríos is sympathetic to the stresses of the Latina aspiring to college and beyond. She said there is the question of “how are you going to get away from the family responsibilities for eight to 10 years?” Getting parents and families to understand the time it takes to train for a medical career is, according to Ríos, “the biggest barrier the recruitment effort to the Latino student has had to deal with.”

Also, said Ríos of high school, “most counselors never tell the Latino student that they can be a doctor. I could see that in the ’70s, and I’m sure it’s the same now, so few have the opportunity to be in the college-preparatory system.” She said that of the between 125 and 135 medical schools in the country, “there are very few Hispanic recruiters” who would be acting as role models for prospective students in all disciplines. “Very few Hispanics get into the professional world,” said Ríos.

She calls for an increased effort to recruit Hispanics into medical schools but said that “the number one issue is really the grammar school. By seventh and eighth grade, those students can already be selected, but they need to be shepherded through.” Ríos also recommends that more federal funding be devoted to improving community-based programs. “There should be a real commitment to Hispanic recruitment on the regional level.”

Ríos advocates a strong mentoring network as well, advising Hispanics, especially Latinas, once they have entered the medical profession, to “go back and help your brothers and sisters do the same thing. There has to be a system set up.” She notes that in many secondary schools, clubs have been formed by Hispanic students who wish to go into health care. “It’s the students helping each other, not the counselors.” Mentoring, to Ríos, is key. “It’s getting them to understand their responsibilities,” she said. And for up-and-coming medical students, it’s about “learning from the group ahead of them.”

Jane Delgado

Dr. Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (NAHH), based in Washington, D.C., said, “I think the most important thing is that women need role models and financing,” noting that most Latinas are starting out in lower-income homes. The NAHH is offering, for the second year, scholarships for young Hispanics for outstanding achievement in science, technology, English and mathematics. Forty-two thousand dollars will be awarded over four years to the winners, and to date, more than $500,000 has been distributed, fully half of that to Latina students. “When we call people, the whole family gets excited,” said Delgado.

“More Latinas want to do things, but it doesn’t mean anything if there aren’t the institutions,” said Delgado. “It’s very hard to do it by yourself.” She cited statistics from the Center for Disease Control that say Latinas under the age of 18 have the highest rate of attempted suicide in the U.S. And that is a reason why the program is important, she said. Delgado is author of The Latina Guide to Health: Consejos and Caring Answers (2010).

Delgado earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the State University of New York-Stony Brook and said that she received “no encouragement” from her high school counselors. “They told me I wouldn’t get in.” Of the university itself, Delgado said, “to this day ... I think they have graduated maybe five Hispanics over the last 30 years.” She also said that in her doctoral dissertation, she was not allowed to use the word “culture” because “they didn’t think it was a valid variable.”

Delgado lamented the lack of role models in the media for young Latinas, noting she would like to see more coverage of, for instance, Labor Secretary Hilda Solís. Delgado said that for young Latinas who want to become professionals in the health care industry, “the most important thing to remember is to never believe when someone says they can’t do it ... just to remember in their darkest hour, they will succeed.” There is “no one magic bullet,” she said, and “it’s not going to be easy, but that’s OK. We know how to work hard.”

Katherine Flores

Dr. Katherine Flores, director of the Latino Center for Medical Education and Research at the University of California-San Francisco, Fresno, said her pursuit of higher education was greatly assisted by a Fulbright Scholarship to Stanford University. “That was one opportunity that made all the difference,” she said. She said that in the ’70s, as today, many Hispanic students suffered a kind of “culture shock” when entering college. She also advocates mentoring as an integral element of success. “Mentorship is very, very important,” said Flores. She said that having “someone who looks at the challenges ... and helps you navigate that system, is critical.” It’s important, also, said Flores, once achieving your goal, to be “looking back and stretching that arm ... helping people navigate those educational roadblocks.”

She believes that many of the misunderstandings that families may have about what is required of a college student “really boil down to socioeconomic conditions of families.” She explained the complicated yet questioning support of her own family as she pursued a college degree. “My family has always been extremely supportive. However, my family had never had a college experience.” Flores said that she came from “a traditional family where the woman doesn’t leave the house until she marries.” Additionally, “to see me work as hard as I was working and to not get paid for that ... it was difficult for them. That’s really hard for a family that doesn’t come from an academic background.”

Yet her family’s strong work effort is what ultimately led to her academic success. “That work ethic I was raised with, it helped to propel me forward.” Flores advises young people today that they will be successful “if they have a passion ... if you have a passion about what you want to do in life. And if that passion is about community needs, I think that helps a lot.”

Recruiting Latina students, then, according to Flores, “is really about working with the student, providing mentorship, providing academic guidance, and also working with the families and helping them understand what their children are going to be doing.”