As I walk down the hallway in the pediatric clinic, I see it and hear it all around me. Voices, Puerto Rican and Dominican mothers and fathers speaking in Spanish to their children: "siéntate, que ahí viene el doctor" ("sit, here comes the doctor"). Yet, today there's only one clinician who speaks Spanish in the clinic. And today is a good day. On bad days we can rarely find someone who looks like the patients, speaks their language and relates to their unique needs. I often ask myself: "Where are we?" Ten years ago I hoped today there would be so many more of us in the health professions. I have been hoping for so many more of us to come in the door, ready to put on the stethoscope, listen to a young child's chest and say "Hoy todo se oye bien" ("today everything sounds good"). Unfortunately, my hopes still have to wait.
According to the US Department of Labor, in 2013 Hispanics only comprised 3.8 percent of all physicians and surgeons; while only 6.5 percent of Hispanics were represented among Registered Nurses and only 4.4 percent of pharmacists. This is a legitimate cause for concern for our community, which was clearly documented 10 years ago in the Sullivan Commission's Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions Report.
Ten years later we still have a great need for Hispanic physicians, nurses, pharmacists and professionals from all health disciplines. Patients of ethnically diverse communities need healthcare providers who look like them, speak their language and understand the important aspects of their cultural identities. Case in point: Is it still acceptable to send a patient home with instructions to take a medication "once a day" (because somehow we still find bottles of medications labeled in English for Spanish-speaking patients) and the patient ends up taking it 11 times? What about Abuela (grandmother) who doesn't want to take her medicine because she still thinks taking too many pills is a bad thing -- and she skips her all-important blood pressure medication that can keep her from having a stroke? You and I know the one she trusts is her "doctor de la cínica que me habla en español" ("the doctor from the clinic who speaks to me in Spanish").
Those of us who are ethnically and racially diverse are perfectly equipped to understand the needs of our communities. As Latinos we "get" the familias like the ones we grew up with. Abuela knows that her Latino health care provider understands her point of view; will not judge her and will find a way to convince her to take it -- because she wants to live a long life playing and caring for her nietos (grandchildren), right? That is what ultimately gives individuals a sense of comfort: "my health care provider understands me, accepts me, and works with me."
The cultural and linguistic gap between so many patients and their health care providers may be a serious problem. The solution is not simple; it is very complex, but one way to approach it is to have more providers of ethnically diverse races. Having more ethnically and racially diverse providers will make it possible to deliver health care that is meaningful, culturally appropriate and in the context of the person, thus making it patient and family-centered care.
However, the challenge of attracting more Latinos to the health care profession still remains. But with great challenges come great opportunities and more opportunities to counter this disparity and kick-start medical careers among Latinos are presenting themselves.
For the last four years, Macy's has sponsored the American Heart Association's Go Red™ Multicultural Scholarship Fund. Each year, 16 young and promising multicultural women are awarded $2,500 to pursue their dream of entering the health professions: medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy and nutrition -- just to name a few. The scholarship champions greater inclusion of multicultural women in medical, nursing and allied health studies to better meet the cultural needs of racially diverse patients.
Andrea Ibarra is one of this year's scholarship recipients. The Ecuador native came to the United States as a young girl and found her passion for helping others during years of community service. She's now pursuing a career as an anesthesiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. You can read more about her inspiring story here.
While Andrea's story is unique, it's also representative of so many young Latinas who desire to work as a health professional. Andrea might remind you of a daughter, sister, cousin or friend who shows that same promise and passion for healing. If that is the case, please share this article with her. By applying for this scholarship she might find another way to start and stay on the path of a great dream. Because just as much as she needs the support and incentive to stay on that path, the rest of our community needs it as well.
Better hurry up though. Abuela is asking for YOU in the waiting room.
1. US Department of Labor (2014). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf
2. US Department of Labor (2014). College Enrollment and Work Activity of High School Graduates News Release. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/hsgec_04222014.htm
3. National Center for Education Statistics (2010). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015/indicator6_25.asp
4. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute of Medicine (2010). The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. http://www.rwjf.org/en/research-publications/find-rwjf-research/2011/01/the-future-of-nursing.html
5. The Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce (2004). Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions Report. http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/SullivanReport.pdf