There Aren’t Enough Spanish-Speaking Doctors to Serve California’s Latino Population

Lead Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Read more

Last year, The Week published a piece titled, “The racial disparity at the doctor’s office isn’t getting better. It might actually be getting worse.” Back in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report revealed that African-Americans only made up 5.5 percent of physicians and surgeons in the United States, and Latinos stood at only 6.3 percent. Perhaps that’s why in just the span of a week, two black female doctors trying to provide medical assistance on two different flights found themselves being turned down by flight attendants who didn’t believe they were doctors. Despite showing their credentials, Drs. Ashley Denmark and Tamika Cross were passed over for nurses (in Denmark’s case) and a white male doctor (in Cross’ case).

While this kind of racism, stereotyping, and/or bias is unacceptable, it also shows why we need doctors who reflect what our population looks like. But in a place like California – with a nearly 40 percent Latino population – the difference between a Spanish-speaking Latino doctor can mean the difference between a healthy and unhealthy community. A recent Latino Physicians of California (LPOC) survey found that even though there’s a growing Latino population in California, Latino doctors only account for 5 percent of the state’s total. This becomes a problem when patients – who sometimes only speak Spanish – cannot understand their doctors, according to the Associated Press.

Irma Torres, for example, recalls a time when her husband, Miguel, was hospitalized for a heart condition. “I asked him, ‘What did the doctor say?’” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And he said, ‘I don’t know.’” 55-year-old Angelina Campos suffers from high blood pressure and migraines, and she struggles with English-speaking doctors. She instead has her pharmacist translate what her doctor said after the fact. A 2009 focus group analysis at Kaiser Permanente Southern California found that Spanish-speaking patients only understood about half of what an English-speaking doctor told them.

Because of the Affordable Care Act, more Latinos have access to health insurance, but some still avoid going because they feel alienated by the system. “Latino physicians tend to be that bridge, this critical piece of healthcare communication,” said Dr. Gloria Sánchez. But at Kaiser, those with access to Spanish-speaking doctors could more successfully control their diabetes, blood pressure, and depression.

And even if offices hired interpreters, non-Latino doctors may not necessarily understand their Latino patients culturally. “Latinos are very family-centric,” Family Dr. Silvia Diego told California Health Line. “We take care of our old, we learn traditional home remedies. It’s difficult to establish a patient-doctor relations if [doctors] don’t understand or dismiss cultural values. And then we wonder why there are large health disparities among Latinos.”

The number of Latino doctors has dropped in more than 30 years. In 1980, there was 135 doctors for every 100,000 Latinos. By 2010, that number dropped to 105 doctors. This means that in places like California, the low number of Latino doctors can be overwhelmed with Latino patients. There’s an added sense of urgency as 30 percent of Latino doctors will retired within the next decade, according to the LPOC survey.

While doctors like Jose Arevalo thinks that developing “a true pipeline” is necessary, there’s at least hope that the Medical DREAMer Opportunity Act will bring in more Latinos. Signed into law last month by Gov. Jerry Brown, the act allows undocumented students to apply for state scholarships and makes them eligible for loan forgiveness program.