As the Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to grow — surpassing 60 million in 2019 — a recent workforce survey showed less than 6% of U.S. doctors are Hispanic.
This underrepresentation of Hispanics in the medical profession was among the issues discussed in Nuestras Raices, a virtual panel hosted by the medical school’s Latino Medical Student Association Sept. 15 to mark the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The panel featured four Hispanic physicians from diverse backgrounds who shared their journey into medicine, the need for more Hispanics in the profession and how to overcome social and cultural barriers. The online event held via Zoom saw some 60 participants including medical students and College of Medicine faculty and staff.
Dr. Yanisa Del Toro, internal medicine physician at UCF Health, spoke of the challenges she faced when she moved from Puerto Rico to Florida to complete her residency at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“Coming from Puerto Rico, I stumbled quite a bit as the language barrier was a big challenge,” Dr. Del Toro said. “And even though I was a great student, I was at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the residents. It requires a lot of self-esteem and confidence to keep going and not stumbling in the process of advancing your career. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why we have a low representation in the medical field, because of these challenges that we encounter.”
As the only Hispanic resident during her pediatric residency program at Saint Peter’s University Children’s Hospital in New Jersey, Dr. Daphne Pineda recalls being on the receiving end of stereotypical comments. After hearing her speak Spanish to a patient, a colleague asked Dr. Pineda where she was from and whether she was a DACA recipient. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy protects persons who migrated unlawfully to the United States as children.
“I really wanted to react, but I didn’t,” said Dr. Pineda, who migrated legally to the United States from Guatemala when she was five. “You just have to get used to hearing these stereotypes. It comes with the territory of being Hispanic and you just have to be resilient, choose your battles and just try to educate others.”
In her third year of residency, Dr. Pineda was named Chief Resident and she used this platform to actively recruit other Hispanic residents to the program. She is currently pursuing her fellowship in Neonatal-Perinatal medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia in Augusta, GA.
“For me, the struggle of being a minority in this field is actually an advantage,” she added. “I’m a lot more resilient, and you kind of get through those struggles a little bit better than people who have no struggles at all in this field.”
Dr. Pablo Arnoletti, who is Chief of Surgical Oncology at AdventHealth Orlando, gave students sound advice on how to deal with prejudice and discrimination.
“I think the best way to overcome it is to show our patients that we can provide as good a service and sometimes better than people without a Spanish accent, that we’re proud of our heritage and that will we keep our patients as the centers of what we do,” he said. “I think early on, you have to learn to put it (discrimination) behind you, embrace your origins and display them proudly.”
The panel emphasized the need for more Hispanics in health care, as Spanish-speaking patients have better health outcomes with a doctor who understands their culture and can communicate with them in their first language. The speakers also highlighted the health disparities suffered by in underserved communities. AdventHealth neurologist, Dr. Enrique Serrano spoke about cultural barriers in providing care for his patients especially when it comes to mental health issues.
“They feel like there is a stigma to be seen by psychiatrists whenever I recommend them to see one,” said Dr. Serrano, who serves as the director of the neurology residency program and is originally from Puerto Rico. “And sometimes they are not able to access this treatment due to finances or no insurance coverage. I often end up treating their depression or anxiety, but if they suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, it’s hard for them to get over the fear of the stigma and get the care they need. I really wish we could do better there.”
Dr. Arnoletti also shared that as a cancer surgeon, he has seen significant delays in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer among the Hispanic community.
“Oftentimes there are worse outcomes for cancer patients in the African-American and Hispanic communities because of lack of access to health care,” he said. “We are also seeing it during the current COVID-19 pandemic, where there is greater mortality for those patients.
“But it’s an unfulfilled promise that we all have to keep, to assist those that do not have the resources to obtain the best possible care,” he added. “But there’s a lot of work to be done. We are all in this together and we still have a lot of room for improvement.”
Vice President of the Latino Medical Student Association, Caridad Infante said the panel was especially important to amplify the voices of the underrepresented at this critical time.
“We believe the panel was integral to inspiring and empowering medical students during such an uncertain time,” she said. “Events like this play a significant role in promoting diversity and inclusion, as well as cultural competency among future health care professionals.