By Erin Delmore
The U.S. is heading for a shortage of physicians, even in a state as well educated and populated as New Jersey. Particularly in need: minority medical professionals who some argue can best meet the needs of diverse communities.
“If you look at the admissions to medical school itself, it doesn’t reflect the population at all,” said Dr. Patrick Beaty, chief medical officer at Metropolitan Family Health Network.
African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans make up a quarter of the U.S. population but only 6 percent of doctors, according to the Association of Medical Colleges.
“They’re working behind a curve. Essentially, a lot of this didn’t come out until, unfortunately, my time in the ‘80s and ’90s when they began to talk about diversity,” Beaty said.
The result: under-representation in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals while the number of newly insured people — especially Latinos and African-Americans — skyrockets, thanks to expanded coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
“Especially in the Latino community, there’s an extra component because of language accommodation, and many Latinos who don’t speak English we know don’t get the services or attention they need because they really can’t express themselves in the language. So having a diverse staff that mirrors our population is really important,” said National Association of Hispanic Nurses New Jersey Chapter President Gina Miranda-Diaz.
“I don’t look typically Hispanic, so when I walk in a room and I address the patient in Spanish and start speaking, there’s an immediate relaxation. You can just see it in their face. Their whole body relaxes and they quickly start saying all the things that they want to say. I’ve noticed at times when I go in and I don’t speak right away, they’re just kind of sitting there, pulling their sheet closer because they really don’t know how it’s going to be addressed,” said Marie DiTommaso, certified nurse-midwife at Metropolitan Family Health Network.
“Many people have a lot of fear when it comes to dentistry. They’ve had either no experience with a dentist or they’ve had, sometimes, unfortunately, a very bad experience early on. And when there’s someone that they feel that they can relate to, it’s easier for them to get into treatment and to stay in treatment,” said Dr. Hallie Williams, dental director at Metropolitan Family Health Network.
The doctors and nurses we spoke with said you need a diverse group of medical professionals to care for a diverse community. But they said getting people into the medical field can be difficult.
“They work very hard. They go to school for a very long time. And they owe a lot of money,” said Registered Nurse Vivian Delvalle.
The average debt among medical students in the U.S. tops $175,000. And if that doesn’t deter would-be students: try 10-plus years in school before even starting work. Beyond the money and the time, health care workers we spoke with said there’s no pipeline for minority students.
“We were introduced to these kinds of things, I mean I was a candy striper in the hospital but I liked it so I came back more and more. We don’t have supportive programs like that for students to just come in and see what it’s like. People just don’t know any more,” DiTommaso said.
It’s a growing concern among health care workers nearing retirement. Racial and ethnic minorities are projected to grow to more than half the U.S. population by the year 2050 while their representation in medicine declines. They say the need is as important as ever.
“We have a lot of Arabic clients that come now from all different Arabic countries, and the same thing with them. I know maybe two or three Arabic words. There’s one word in particular that I use before I start an exam. It’s immediate relaxation. All it means is ‘I begin this in the name of God.’ The person just relaxes. I had one lady who had tears in her eyes, because I could use one word that made her understand that I understood what it meant to her for this stranger to be touching her,” DiTommaso said.
“Yesterday I had a Latino with her child here and I’ve seen the young lady grow up over time, over the last five years. She’s an adolescent now. And I always ask them, what do you want to be? And interesting enough, this one said, ‘I want to be a Supreme Court justice.’ I said, ‘Go ahead. Do it. Live your dreams,’ because that’s what we need to do is try and encourage people to live their dreams,” Beaty said.
Empowering patients in the exam room and beyond. It’s just what the doctor ordered.