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Why California needs more Latino/a physicians

Opinion
Article

With Latino/a Physicians Day approaching, it's high time for the ranks of doctors to reflect the demographics of the nation.

hispanic heritage month | © Vector Tradition - stock.adobe.com

© Vector Tradition - stock.adobe.com

Research has consistently shown that Latino/a patients are more likely to access medical advice and care, and are more satisfied with their care, when their healthcare practitioners (doctors, nurses, technicians) share similar backgrounds to their own – not just speaking the same language but also sharing a deeper understanding based on culture, beliefs, values and community. This is what is meant by “cultural competency" in healthcare; sharing lived experiences and cultures allows for comfortability, honesty, and trust between patients and practitioners and, as a result, contributes to better health outcomes.

National Latino/a Physician’s Day, is a recent grassroots movement now celebrated annually on October 1st to amplify and advocate for more cultural diversity amongst our healthcare providers.

Today, although Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. population (and 40% of California’s), Latino/a persons account for only 6% of physicians in the United States. Therefore, we have a substantial gap to close – not for the sake of “on-paper” representation, but because that representation is proven to make us healthier. Looking ahead – the Hispanic/LatinX population is projected to grow by 187% between 2000 and 2050, reaching about a quarter of the nation’s population by 2050 – meaning that effective healthcare approaches for Hispanic/Latino/a patients are essential to save lives, reduce care disparities, and reduce health-related costs in the long term.

The work of Latino/a physicians brings about real, and oftentimes immediate, benefits for their patients, as any physician’s would. But for Latino/a physicians in particular, this is done in spite of an educational system, career pathways, and professional networks that tend, like other U.S. institutions, to disproportionately benefit white professionals – therefore making under-represented groups’ experiences more intense, complicated, and difficult. Latinos, for example, experience obstacles and hardships related to financial and opportunity costs, academic disadvantages, and citizenship, most notably.

Therefore, National Latino/a Physician’s Day, provides a “call to action” for Latinos, healthcare organizations, and U.S. society at large. We also recognize the need to do more to see greater representation from all communities of color, race, and ethnicity.

There must be concrete actions that widen career pathways in education, training, and networking for Latinos interested in career in medicine. As it is, many of the same obstacles that contribute to Latinos’ non-optimal health outcomes (language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, etc.) also limit the advancement of Latino/a physicians.

Therefore, the healthcare system’s gatekeepers (educators, executives, practitioners) must prioritize cultural diversity in their advancement and hiring decisions. Again, diversity isn’t some abstract concept – it enables better care, plain and simple.

That is why the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA) partners with pathway programs like Project Lead the Way in multiple cities across California, which offers PreK-12 hands-on educational programs, tailored to different health career paths. Support from the CSA, for example, provided funding for teacher training and supplies so high school students could have access to a tangible, real-world biomedical curriculum and work with physicians to grow their interest in healthcare careers.

Additional pathway programs operate in communities and professional networks. MiMentor is a national organization guiding the next generation of healthcare professionals, and Kaiser Permanente offers many programs aimed at widening pathways for underrepresented persons in medicine.

Research proves that a diverse and representative healthcare workforce improves patients’ access to care, increases their use of preventive care, improves their perceptions of the care they receive, and leads to measurable gains in their health outcomes. That also serves healthcare systems and practitioners’ best interests in the form of more positive workplace experiences and better employee retention.

It is essential that we work to pave the way for more Latino/a physicians, so that more Latinos can in turn lead healthier lives. California has a real opportunity to lead the way in ensuring that all of our communities can thrive.

Antonio Hernandez Conte, MD, President of the California Society of Anesthesiologists, specializes in cardiac anesthesiology at the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. Dr. Hernandez Conte is a graduate of Brown University and the Boston University School of Medicine; he completed his anesthesiology residency/fellowship Yale University and holds an MBA from University of California, Irvine.

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