Latinos are the most significant and fastest-growing group in the U.S., yet their presence in healthcare, particularly as physicians, remains disproportionately low.
Nationwide, Latinos are 19% of the U.S. population. Still, according to the Pew Research Center, just 7% of all physicians and surgeons are Hispanic. What’s worse -Latinas make up just 2% of the physician population, according to researchers at UCLA.
The underrepresentation of Latinos in the physician workforce has significant implications for healthcare equity. Latino patients often face barriers in accessing culturally competent care, language barriers, and a lack of trust.
Dr. Emma Olivera has focused much of her work on helping the medically underserved community by taking on various leadership roles, including as a pediatrician in the suburbs of Chicago. It is here where she aspires to advocate for children and continue to mentor the next generation of leaders in medicine.
With demographics changing in the United States, it has become increasingly important for physicians to be able to speak languages other than English. “I’ve seen mothers come into the (doctor’s) office and say, “This is the first time that I’ve actually spoken to a doctor in my language,” shared Dr. Olivera about the existing language barriers in the healthcare system. “They’ll drive fifty minutes, an hour, just to talk to me (in Spanish), so they know how to best take care of their children.”
Spanish is the most frequently spoken language at home other than English in the U.S., with an estimated 40 million people who use Spanish as their first language.
Dr. Olivera is a member of Healing The Children, Northeast. The organization’s Our Medical Teams Abroad Program reaches across national boundaries to provide children with desperately needed medical care. In 2022, teams of doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical professionals traveled to Bolivia, Ukraine, Colombia, and Ecuador. Services were provided to 783 children, and 1,431 procedures were performed.
“It is really rewarding,” said Olivera about the experience of participating in the humanitarian trips. For Dr. Olivera, it’s personal, given that she is of Bolivian and Cuban descent. “Taking care of children is a passion of mine. In Bolivia, they drive eight hours in a motorcycle with their baby to see if their child can get surgery. It’s astounding to me,” she said. Five teams of 74 members with Facial Plastic, Cleft Lip and Palate, Speech Pathology, and Dental Specialties participated in the volunteer program last year.
The lack of Latino representation in the physician workforce is partly due to various barriers faced by aspiring Latino doctors. These include limited access to quality education, financial constraints, and a lack of mentors and role models in the field.
“My parents always told me, “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres,” Dr. Olivera said about sharing the same advice with her mentees. “You really need to find a tribe, people who always uplift you. I had friends go, “What’s going to be your Plan B?” I never had a Plan B. I didn’t get into medical school right away. I always had that as my Plan A,” she said about the importance of pursuing your dreams.
A native Chicagoan, Dr. Olivera graduated from University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) and completed medical school at UIC College of Medicine – Rockford campus.
UCLA analysis revealed that only 2 percent of all physicians in the United States were Latina.
Over the years, the medical field has faced difficulties retaining female physicians. According to the 19th News, 40 percent of women physicians either leave their profession or switch to part-time work within six years after completing their residency.
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