ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From 1980 until 2010, while the Latino population in the United States was skyrocketing, the number of Latino physicians, per capita, dropped precipitously, according to a new national study.
The nation’s Latino population rose 243 percent between 1980 and 2010, the study of detailed census data found. During that same period, the number of Latino medical doctors per 100,000 Latino residents declined 22 percent, creating a shortage of physicians with many of the language and cultural skills needed to serve the Spanish-speaking community.
In 1980, the country had 135 Latino physicians for every 100,000 Latinos in the country, but 30 years later, that figure had fallen to 105 per 100,000. At the same time, the national rate of non-Hispanic white doctors increased from 211 for every 100,000 non-Hispanic whites to 315.
The study, by researchers at the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA, looked at detailed U.S. Census data from 1980 to 2010 in five states with large Latino populations: California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas.
New Mexico was not included, but while the actual number of Latinos living in this state is lower than the big states in the study, a higher percentage of New Mexico’s population is Latino than any other state.
On its website, the New Mexico Department of Health reports that the state’s diversity “sometimes leads to barriers to obtaining culturally-sensitive health care. Because of this and other social factors, there are real disparities in the health of New Mexicans of various race/ethnic groups.”
Dr. Valerie Romero-Leggott, vice chancellor for diversity at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, said the dearth of Latino doctors outlined by the study likely stems from a number of reasons, one of which would be the high cost of higher education, including medical school.
“I just think it’s a troubling trend,” she said.
New Mexico has several programs to train Latino and minority health care workers, including physicians, Romero-Leggott said.
She specifically mentioned UNM’s BA/MD — Bachelor of Arts/Medical Doctor — program, which recruits talented high school seniors from across the state who show a proclivity and passion for health sciences. Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree requirement, the students go on to reserved seats in the UNM School of Medicine.
Two-thirds of BA/MD students have been ethnic minorities, Romero-Leggott said.
UNM is also partnering with high schools in smaller communities across New Mexico to identify potential health care workers and guide them into medical professions, she said.
The national study, “Latino Physicians in the United States, 1980-2010: A Thirty-Year Overview From the Censuses,” is slated for print publication in Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. It was pre-published online this month.
Lead author Dr. Gloria Sanchez said the shortage could negatively affect health care for Latinos. She said the researchers were surprised by the 22 percent drop in the rate of Latino physicians, a decline that stands in stark contrast to the 49 percent increase in non-Hispanic white physicians over the same period.
Prior research has found that Latino physicians are far more likely than whites to practice medicine in areas with large concentrations of Latinos, and that underrepresented minorities — Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — are more likely than whites to practice in areas with large underserved minority populations. Additionally, Latino patients with limited English-language skills visit doctors less frequently than those with stronger English proficiency.
“These are critical issues in New Mexico,” said UNM’s Romero-Leggott.
The study is an update to a 2000 paper by UCLA’s David Hayes-Bautista who co-authored the current study along with Theresa Nevarez, also of UCLA, and Werner Schink of the California Department of Social Services.