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Group serves NM patients

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Almost three decades ago, a group of medical students at the University of New Mexico came together to honor one of their professors and ensure the diverse needs of the state’s population were met.

Patients wait in line to get their eyes examined during a Feria de Salud hosted by the New Mexico Hispanic Medical Association. Patients are referred to a clinic or office that will provide follow-up care. (SOURCE: NM Hispanic Medical Association)

Their efforts have now blossomed into a scholarship program, an annual gala, free services for the community, continuing education for its members and advocacy. The New Mexico Hispanic Medical Association was formed in 1989 to “make health care accessible and affordable to all New Mexicans,” according to its website.

Executive director Steve Lucero said it’s important for people to be treated either by doctors from their background or who have experience in their communities. The association has approximately 40 paid members but more than 100 doctors who are involved in some way in the work they do.

“Cultural competence is important. When treating a patient, it’s better if you have the capacity to see what is important to them, what their background is and how that impacts their health and willingness to comply with treatment.”

Dr. Pablo Vigil was one of the association’s founding members along with nine others. He was born and raised in Española, had a private practice for about eight years in the 1980s and is now a doctor at a state psychiatric hospital. He said when he and the other founding members were medical students at the UNM School of Medicine, a medical school doctor, Anthony Martinez, worked to increase the diversity of students. He made a point to mentor students from rural areas.

“We thought it would be good to honor his legacy by forming an association,” he said. “We thought it would be a good way to support each other and socialize with other.”

Board member Dr. Anthony Vigil joined association 15 years ago. He practiced family medicine for 41 years and retired earlier this summer. He said over the years the scope of the group has changed.

“We expanded and became more community oriented,” he said. “We now have an endowment, we work with the dean of diversity at UNM.”

The group also takes on pressing community health issues. Years ago, Anthony Vigil said, the group’s focus was diabetes.

“We’ve now moved the focus to opioid use and addiction,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest issues we face now.”

Members of the association can attend workshops about opioids, getting information about treatment for addiction and appropriate prescription levels.

The group awards scholarships to UNM students who have experience working in diverse communities and who commit to serving New Mexico. Lucero said the scholarship is not limited to Hispanic students as long as they meet the qualifications mentioned.

“In the spirit of diversity, we hear the term people of color,” he said. “But white is a color, too.”

Anthony Vigil said the scholarships are usually $1,500 and the group awards four or five each year. The scholarships, he said, not only help the students, but the entire community by increasing the number of available doctors.

“It’s hard to recruit to New Mexico,” he said. “We are trying to encourage students to stay in New Mexico.”

Each year in April the association holds a Feria de Salud (free health clinic) and Vigil said at least 90 percent of attendees are uninsured New Mexicans. Doctors volunteer at the event and provide free mammograms, screenings for dementia and diabetes and other services. The fair lasts one day and patients are then referred to a clinic or other office that can follow up with them.

Anthony Vigil said the group also monitors health bills during the legislative session.

“We decide what to support or not support,” he said. “We look for things that would improve the health of New Mexicans.”

The group will hold its annual gala Aug. 25. Tickets are $75 a person or $750 a table.