Latino healthcare professionals: A broken pipeline, a community in need


It’s no secret that there is a shortage of Latino healthcare professionals in the medical industry. If the health of the Latino community is going to be improved, the U.S. needs to increase the number of Latino healthcare workers of all types.

In 2012, Dr. Mayra Oliveras-Urueta, then a doctoral student, authored a report on the Latino/a health professions pipeline. An area that needs more research and support. The report was so insightful and still relevant that it’s worth summarizing below. For the full report <- click here.

Shortage of Latinos and Latinas in Healthcare

The shortage of Latinos in the healthcare industry negatively impacts patient health outcomes for the Latino community.  Having healthcare providers that reflect the diversity of the community allows patients to received culturally congruent healthcare.  It’s necessary for increased access to quality healthcare.

At the time of the report, Latinos only made up 5.9% of the healthcare workforce. The situation only seems to get more dire as a UCLA study found that the number of Latino physicians per 100,000 Latinos actually dropped from 135 to 105 from 1980 – 2010. The UCLA study also predicted the number of Latino doctors in California would drop 6% by 2020. It’s no surprise that Latino doctors have three times as many Latino patients then their non-Latino counterparts.

These sobering stats are important because when Latinos are seen by primary care physicians from their own ethnic group, they express higher satisfaction rates and have better health outcomes.  It’s obvious that it helps to have healthcare workers who speak a patient’s language literally and culturally.

Building cultural health capital

Cultural health capital empowers healthcare provider and patient communications by making the patient part of the healthcare family.  Building cultural health capital includes:

  • Knowing appropriate preventive health measures to avoid illness.
  • How to understand the latest medical research and apply it to daily life.
  • Knowing what questions to ask of healthcare providers

Factors Affecting Latino/a Health Professions Degree Completion

The school environment is a major roadblock for Latinos looking to enter the healthcare industry.  For high school students the obstacles include:

  • School environments with low expectations and minimal academic / social support
  • Lack of English proficiency
  • Legal immigration status

In the face of these barriers, the teacher-student relationship is critical to a student persisting on the long career path it takes to become a healthcare professional. A study cited in the report found that only 57% of Latinos felt teachers cared about them. It’s no surprise that many student’s believe their teacher’s don’t have high academic expectations for them.  A culture of high expectations is part of molding high performing students.

Low academic expectations are more prominent in high-minority school, but even when a school does have high expectations, Latinos and blacks still suffer from low expectations. These low expectations are manifested in ways like not preparing minority students for the ACT / SAT.

This has a huge impact on how many Latinos go into the healthcare.  Latino students will choose not to go into the industry just to avoid the “hard” academic classes needed to get into the field.

Pre-Health Professions Coursework

Prerequisite science and math related coursework is a huge barrier for getting more Latinos into healthcare.  When Latino students struggle with STEM based classes, they may shift away from pursuing a health profession to something that doesn’t require advanced math like Calculus or chemistry.

These gateway classes are important because getting admitted into health related programs requires students to have a high GPA in these courses.  Admissions committees are left wondering if students are struggling with basic science and math courses, how will they be able to survive the rigors of a health program?

Most health programs from nursing to medical school (physicians) have a limited number of seats.  Competition for these slots is fierce. Schools are hesitant to select students with below average scores in prerequisite classes because they don’t want a student to drop out and “waste” a slot. Schools favor students with a proven academic track record.

Of students who lost interest in health related careers, 75% said their lost interest was because of their experience in prerequisite classes. This was especially true for women and minorities.

This didn’t only impact college students.  The Journal of the National Medical Association found that courses like chemistry deterred high school students from even considering a career in health without even attempting it.

Social support system

Multiple studies confirm what we many Latinos already know- there needs to be better social, academic and professional support to get more Latinos to succeed in the health industry.  The Latinos that do go on to become health professionals often have a strong social support system that ranges from family to professional mentors.

Family members strongly influence a student’s desire to enter a health related career. Having a family member that is a health professional provides key insights and mentoring that will help the student cope with the rigors of the curriculum.  Unfortunately, since only about 5-6% of healthcare workers are Latino, not many Latino families have this luxury.

Academic support should be comprehensive and not just focus on a particular class. Many Latinos are first generation college students, so they need advising on how to approach all of their studies. Peer-to-peer support shouldn’t be overlooked.  Peer mentoring allows them to learn from others their age and how others cope with the curriculum.

High school and undergraduate studies do not often encourage cooperative problem solving. Academics in America is a largely individualistic endeavor.  This is a blow to Latinos raised in an environment that values community and cooperation.

Dr. Olivares-Urueta found that students that had role models and mentors had an easier time achieving their goals in the health professions. Ideally, role models and mentors would be someone the student interfaces with on a regular basis. If that is not a reality, less formal contact with the students’ own dentist, pharmacist or doctor can help dispel misconceptions about health professional education. Having even these types of connections makes becoming a medical professional more attainable.

Cost of Health Professions Education

When Latino students and their families see the price tag associated with a medical education, it can deter them from pursuing their dream.  The health professions programs that experience the most growth are the less expensive degree programs that don’t require a doctoral education.

Part of the academic advising should include information on how to make health care education more affordable through scholarships, in-state tuition and special diversity programs that will supplement the cost of tuition.

Programs That Work

In 1994, the Premedical Honors College was created by Baylor College of Medicine  and the University of Texas-Pan American to strengthen the health professions pipeline in South Texas. The area struggles to attract healthcare workers and is designated medically underserved. Few South Texas students attend and graduate from medical school

PHC’s success has been so lauded that the Texas State Legislature decided to institute a similar program statewide. The Texas State Legislature allocated $4 million dollars to initiate the Joint Admission Medical Program (JAMP) which is almost identical to the PHC program. Additionally, there are seven times more pre-med students at UT-PA than before PHC’s inception. UT-PA is now considered one of the top 5 producers of Mexican-American medical school enrollees. PHC is also credited for increasing the number of science and health care workers in South Texas as PHC students who have not pursued medical school have gone into other health professions or the teaching profession


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