According to The American Medical Association Physician Masterfile and U.S Census data, Latinos represent 16 percent of the country’s population and only 5 percent of physicians.
Not only are fewer Hispanics pursuing medical careers, but as a whole the Hispanic population is classified as under served, meaning there are typically more than 2,000 people per doctor in Hispanic communities.
Even though, in California alone, Latino physician numbers are anticipated to increase by 30 percent by 2020, that number will be dwarfed by the projected Latino population growth of 74 percent over that same time frame.
Not only the number of Latino medical graduates will not likely catch up to the projected population growth, but also the future number of Hispanic doctors may actually decrease due to current low enrollment in educational courses.
“In 2007 (the most recent year for which there is data) the number of accepted Latino medical school applicants was down 4 percent from the year before, according to the AAMC’s ‘Diversity in Medical Education’ report,” explained Newsweek‘s Natalie Rodriguez. “And while there was small growth in the percentage of Latino medical-school applicants overall (along with every racial group, except for Native Americans), the numbers are basically on par with those from 2005. That same report showed that whatever statistic one uses to measure the presence of Latinos in the medical field, they have all basically remained stagnant since the mid-’80s.”
The reason for the stagnation is linked to factors which typically adversely influence the Latino community. The Center for Disease Control reports Latinos suffer disparities related to numerous socioeconomic issues such as poverty, low levels of education, and unemployment. Other factors, such as unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, discrimination, and poor or dangerous neighborhood settings all play a roll as well in career choices.
Medical school financingis out of reach for many Hispanics, with overall debt soaring to upwards of $150,000, and many of those who wish to enter the medical field lack a proper former education. Family support also plays a role, as low-income families tend to steer children toward educations that do not require a lot of debt.
Those who do become doctors rarely select the hands-on community medical field where they are most needed, opting instead for high-paying technical or surgical jobs, an issue that affects patients seeking medical care from a doctor of similar ethnicity. This commonality instills a feeling of trust the physician will understand that individual’s specific needs.
For Latinos, having a physician fluent in Spanish or culturally sensitive, also goes a long way toward building a lasting relationship.
“Research indicates that when emotionally distressed, we tend to rely on our native language,” said Bronx nonprofit medical clinic Comunilife founder Rosa Gil. “When an elderly Puerto Rican says ‘Ay, me duele el corazón,’ [translated, literally, as ‘Oh, my heart hurts’] she’s talking about being distressed emotionally. But that can easily be mistranslated for having chest pain.”
Often, when language is not the primary concern, understanding of cultural background is also essential for Hispanics, who tend to have very particular concepts and ideas about illness and health. The shortage of Hispanic doctors might worsen the lack of preventative care that Latinos have access to, making them less likely to want to consult with a physician when concerned about their health.
Shortage of Hispanic doctors does not only affect other Hispanics. There are many places in the United States that do not meet the necessary doctor/patient quota. More doctors in general are needed – especially those willing and prepared to do community service. An increase of number of Hispanic doctors could help alleviate the issue.
When it comes to leadership positions, hospitals across the U.S. are also severely lacking in diversity, according to a national report by Witt/Kieffer, and the American Hospital Association (AHA) reports that hospitals boards are made of 90 percent non-Hispanic members, mostly Caucasians. Hispanics make 3 percent of hospital board members in the United States.
While progress in eliminating the health care disparities within the Latino community appears to be slow, steps are being taken to address the physician shortage.
Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans, has expanded its partnership with National Medical Fellowships (NMF) and donated $1 million toward supporting Latino and African-American medical studentsin training and education programs.
“Kaiser Permanente understands the importance of having a health care workforce that will reflect the diversity of our ever-evolving population,” said Yvette Radford, a member of the NMF board and vice president for external and community affairs, Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “We recognize that there are insufficient numbers of African-American and Latino medical students, and our support for NMF is one way to help address this important issue.”