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  • Viewpoints

    ‘6% is not enough.’

    Just 6% of U.S. physicians are Latino, despite 19% of the U.S. population identifying as Latino. A coalition of physicians aims to change that.

    Toddler girl laughing while doctor examines

    Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the AAMC or its members.

    Growing up in the Bronx, New York, and now living and working in Washington, D.C., I have never encountered a Latina/Latino physician while seeking care. My mother, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, moved to the United States in 1973, but only recently, as an octogenarian, was treated by a Latino physician. She shared with me that during this doctor visit, there was more conversation, care, and greater attention to factors that can support her well-being than she had previously experienced with other physicians. As her daughter, I felt a sense of relief that she now has a physician who understands her needs and appears to provide culturally responsive care.

    Our experiences are far from uncommon. With nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States identifying as Latina/Latino, but only 6% of all U.S. physicians identifying as such, it can be a rarity for patients to meet with a Latina/Latino physician. One group seeks to change that. In 2022, Michael Galvez, MD, director of Pediatric Hand Surgery in the Division of Plastic Surgery at Valley Children's Hospital in California, and Cesar Padilla, MD, clinical associate professor in Obstetric Anesthesiology at Stanford University, launched National Latino Physician Day (NLPD), a campaign focused on raising awareness of the underrepresentation of Latina/Latino physicians and the implications that has for the health of all people. Their slogan, “6% is not enough,” captures the urgency with which we must increase the number of Latina/Latino physicians.

    For one day each year – on October 1 – NLPD shines a spotlight on the health disparities that exist for the U.S. Latina/Latino population and the dearth of Latina/Latino physicians who could help reduce those disparities.

    Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that Latina/Latino life expectancy in the United States declined by three years in 2020. Not only are disparities costing lives, but they also pose an economic burden. A recent study supported by the National Institutes of Health showed that racial and ethnic health disparities cost the U.S. economy an estimated $451 billion in 2018 alone. The Latina/Latino community bears about 21% of that cost. 

    But having more Latina/Latino physicians helps to reduce these disparities and senseless losses.

    Research has shown that Latina/Latino physicians are more likely to work with communities that are underserved. A recent report authored by researchers from Arizona State University showed that Latina/Latinos are responsible for $3.2 trillion of the U.S. gross domestic product. These findings suggest that Latina/Latino physicians and the health of the Latina/Latino community also contributes to the health of our nation.

    NLPD is working to raise awareness of these facts by connecting the public to research showing that Latina/Latino physicians contribute to greater access to care for all patients.

    A call to action

    NLPD is sparking a movement by fostering a new narrative, coalition building, and action planning. Nearly 90 groups representing community-based organizations, specialty societies, students, health systems, and medical schools are joining the national recognition campaign, and attention from traditional media and social media outlets is bolstering public awareness. Organizations like the National Hispanic Medical Association and the Latino Medical Student Association have been at the forefront of advancing the representation of Latina/Latinos in medicine. NLPD is helping to broaden the coalition of advocates for change.

    For example, NLPD motivated congressional members – specifically Congresswoman Yadira Caraveo, MD, and Congressman Raul Ruiz, MD – to introduce H. RES. 734, a resolution that recognizes October 1 as National Latino and Latina Physician Day. The resolution also serves as a vehicle to encourage the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), state governments, and local organizations to dedicate funding and program development to supporting aspiring Latina/Latino physicians. 

    This year, NLPD inspired numerous local community events intended to attract and engage the next generation of Latina/Latino physicians. Local events like these open the door to opportunity by exposing students to role models and pathway programs, like MiMentor, and other institutions that sponsor programs responsive to the needs of Latino students. These include HHS-sponsored programs (like the Centers of Excellence), Health Career Opportunity Programs, and pathway programs, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Summer Health Professions Education Program. All of these initiatives play a significant role in health workforce development and in attracting the next generation of Latina/Latino physicians.

    As a Nuyorican (born in New York of Puerto Rican parents) psychologist, I know the importance of recognition and awareness of issues facing the Latina/Latino community. NLPD and National Hispanic Heritage Month help to highlight the experiences and contributions of Latinos/Latinas who often feel invisible. This feeling can be amplified for those of us who have pursued advanced degrees in the health professions. Although there are steady increases in the number Latina/Latino physicians, the percentages are small considering the overall growth of medical school classes. For example, Latina/Latino faculty often note feeling isolated at their institutions and don’t feel that their concerns are addressed by medical school leadership.

    This lack of inclusion is exacerbated by ignorance of the diversity of Latina/Latinos in the United States and their unique relationship to the United States based on national identity. In 2021, the four LCME-accredited schools in Puerto Rico produced 14.5% of MD graduates who identified as Latina/Latino. Despite this vital contribution to the U.S. workforce, a 2022 report by the Latino Medical Student Association showed 51% of survey respondents received a denial of their residency application because they were considered an international medical student. How is it possible that in 2022 leaders in residency programs do not know that Puerto Ricans on the island have been U.S. citizens since 1917? This underscores the importance of days like NLPD.

    NLPD inspires action for increasing representation as well as advancing systems change. Anyone can seek out resources, such as SaludAmerica! Health Equity Report Card, which collates valuable data on multiple health factors and social determinants to inform action that addresses the health of the Latina/Latino community.  SaludAmerica! provides excellent examples of how to use the data including: local advocacy; informing local politicians, agencies, organizations, and community members; and incorporating data in research and grant applications.   

    NLPD is an excellent step in the right direction, but I hope that we all can take it as inspiration to rally together and move beyond one day of awareness to daily recognition and action for Latina/Latino communities and the health of all.