Seeking Representation and Diversity in the Health Workforce and Pipeline

Health Equity

I’ve long aspired to become a doctor, a passion that was kindled by witnessing the unwavering commitment my parents had to the field of medicine in our native Mexico. As the only physicians in our underserved and rural town, my parents did not often charge patients; instead, they received gifts of appreciation or gold jewelry. My journey to attain a medical education in the United States has been a challenging one, largely due to my status as an undocumented student with a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status.

Established in 2012, the DACA program emerged as a lifeline for young undocumented individuals like me. The DACA granted me the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license, work, and attend college without the looming fear of deportation. Still, hurdles remain. Since DACA was created, undocumented students in my home state of Georgia have been barred from the state’s top institutions and public medical schools. However, this is not the case for DACA beneficiaries in other states, such as in California and New York, which are states that grant them in-state tuition and other benefits that most Southern states do not offer. All DACA students lack access to federal financial aid, which often proves an insurmountable barrier to higher education. But thanks to a private college scholarship created for undocumented students, I attended college in a state that welcomed DACA recipients.

Another issue persisted throughout my pre-med journey: the lack of Latino doctors. I was looking for a role model who could guide me through the complexities of medical education and help me navigate the system as a Latina in medicine. Even as the number of Latinos pursuing higher education increases, many Latinos are first-generation immigrants and are often navigating the educational system on their own. Latinas also face barriers in the workplace such as stereotypes and biases, which can affect their professional growth and leadership opportunities.

It was this search for representation that led me to the George Washington Fitzhugh Mullan Institute (GWMI) for Health Workforce Equity, and within it, the Social Mission Alliance’s Health Workforce Diversity Initiative. The Social Mission Alliance works to amplify social mission in health professions education by mobilizing and amplifying learners, teachers, community leaders, policymakers, and their organizations to advance equity in education, research, service, policy, and practice.

The Health Workforce Diversity Initiative (HWDI) is creating communities of practice that are highlighting representation inequities in the health care workforce, as well as in the pathway programs. These communities of practice share best practices and discuss how to improve diversity in the health workforce. The Initiative led to the creation of a Health Workforce Diversity Index and a Health Workforce Diversity Tracker, an interactive tool that provides data on racial diversity among recent graduates and the workforce across 10 health professions by state. This tracker is a powerful accountability tool that can help guide us towards an equitable health workforce.

My personal journey as a DACA recipient and Latina aspiring to be a physician inspired me and our team at the Mullan Institute to develop Documenting Latino Representation In The US Health Workforce. This work was fueled by the stark reality that only 6% of Latinos are physicians despite Latinos comprising around 18 percent of the US population.

The urgent need for a diverse health workforce cannot be overstated. Those who deliver health services and promote health are fundamental to advancing health equity. The composition, training, distribution, willingness to serve members of marginalized groups, and practice methods of the entire health workforce play a pivotal role in the availability and quality of care provided to the most vulnerable segments of society.

When considering policy solutions that can help advance representation of Latinos in the health workforce, it is important that we first improve data collection to expose gaps. Second, policymakers should support pathways to medical education programs, which can help expose students to careers in medicine early in life and offer unique supports to help retain students. Lastly, working to minimize barriers to education, such as investing more public dollars in minority-serving institutions, can help those institutions offer more resources to students. Through cross-sector collaborations, these solutions can help improve the health workforce supply for specific populations and, ultimately, help improve health outcomes and achieve health equity for vulnerable populations.