covid-vaccine A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a site for healthcare workers at Ritchie Valens Recreation Center, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Pacoima, Calif.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

With some Latinos still on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine, we need more Latino healthcare professionals who can reassure the community that the vaccine is safe.

For the Latino community that’s been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus, the Biden administration’s pledge to ramp up vaccination rates is especially good news. That is, until you hear this statistic: Only 31 percent of Latinos said they definitely would get vaccinated, according to a recent survey by the COVID Collaborative. And early rollout reports already reveal a racial disparity.

My heart hurts to think of this, especially since our community’s death rate is nearly three times higher than that of non-Latino whites, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Latinos are incredibly distrustful of a medical establishment that hasn’t always had our best interests at heart, especially given the history of racism in research. It makes sense that they’d be wary of a government-backed vaccination program. It’s why we need more Latino healthcare professionals, especially family physicians, who can reassure them that the vaccine is safe. Only by fully participating in the American healthcare system can we make sure it represents us fairly. It’s a matter of life and death.

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Currently Latinos make up fewer than 6% of physicians in the United States, despite accounting for 18% of the overall population. And the future doesn’t look much brighter. Of the more than 94,000 students who are currently enrolled in US medical schools during the 2020-2021 school year, just 6,294 identify as “Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin.”

As president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, I have spent my career trying to recruit more Hispanics into our profession, but the need is more urgent now than ever.

I’m appealing to any young or mid-career Latino student who is even considering a career in medicine: Apply to medical school. Your community needs you. 

3 Reasons Why Latino Representation in Health Care Matters

First, Latino physicians understand the needs of our community. Perhaps they’re immigrants themselves and are aware of the stress that comes with trying to survive in a foreign country, or they’ve watched their own parents suffer the toll of working in hard manual jobs for low wages. They’re aware of the unique health risks facing our community, whether it’s alcoholism, hypertension or type 2 diabetes. They also speak our language and know our culture. You take diabetes advice more seriously when your doctor tells you in Spanish to cut out the rice, tortillas, and cake from too many family birthday parties. 

Second, Latino doctors can specifically help our community navigate COVID-19. They can motivate patients to undergo testing and encourage them to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials, especially since just 8% of Hispanics participate in clinical trials. Latinos are more likely to participate in research when they learn about opportunities from someone they know.

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Finally, the issue of trust is crucial, especially among the estimated 7 million undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, and those who live with them and love them. Four years of intensified deportation efforts, child separations, and the penalizing public charge rule have created chronic fear and anxiety that destroy people’s health as much as their spirits. Being cared for by doctors who understand us can help patients feel safe to seek medical care, whether it’s diabetes treatment or a COVID-19 vaccine.

So how do we fill the MD pipeline and create a new generation of role models? We need professional and political leaders who encourage and lift up young Latinos, both immigrant and American-born. They are leaders like Xavier Becerra, the first Latino to be nominated as secretary of the Health and Human Services department. 

We must also implement new higher education diversity programs and boost medical school recruitment efforts—especially for students who haven’t considered these options. If students grew up in a family that focused on physical work to put food on the table, they might not have even dreamed of such opportunities. I got that much-needed push when Stanford University recruited Mexican American students in the mid-1970s. Before then, I’d met few other students who were lower-middle class and didn’t grow up in white-collar households. Schools like the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago are already helping DACA recipients gain access to medical school and setting them up to work in underserved communities in exchange for tuition help. 

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We need more programs like these, but we also need immigration reform that opens doors for Hispanic healthcare workers. Immigrants already make up nearly 29% of physicians, according to New American Economy, but many others face visa restrictions. An executive order issued in June—one condemned by the American College of Physicians—is preventing scores of foreign medical students, including 10,000 Mexican physicians, from starting their residencies here. There are also 165,000 foreign-trained healthcare professionals who are currently under-employed or cannot work in their field because of overly stringent American licensing requirements; one job coaching program found that 93% of such healthcare workers would take front-line positions in the pandemic if given the opportunity. 

It’s painful to see my community suffer. Yet we also have so much hope—in the next generation of Latino doctors and the untapped talent of the Hispanic immigrant workforce. Of course, any trained doctor can treat any sick patient. But representation and trust matter, especially right now. We must help show them the way.