The U.S. Hispanic economy's surging demographics are putting pressure on a healthcare industry already plagued by a shortage of qualified workers, creating increased demand for Hispanic professionals from nurses and doctors to administrative, executive, and emergency personnel.
Already grappling with a rapidly aging U.S. population, as well as mergers and cutbacks, the healthcare industry has strained to keep up with overall nationwide needs, a situation which experts expect to continue. "The demand for qualified healthcare workers will continue to increase as the U.S. population ages," says Rhonda Lipsey, vertical marketing manager and healthcare employment expert at CareerBuilder.com. "More than 300,000 healthcare jobs were created in 2004 and economists are projecting this trend will continue in 2005 with nurses, medical assistants, and radiology technicians as some of the top-recruited positions."
But a 2004 report by the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce highlighted significant disparities in a variety of medical fields. The commission found that while Hispanics account for more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represented only 3.3 percent of physicians in 2002 and only 2 percent of registered nurses in 2000.
The commission and other experts say the shortage is translating into lower quality of care and higher rates of illness, disability, and premature death among minorities. The commission and others also note a link to marketplace competitiveness, with poor health outcomes for members of racial and ethnic minorities attributable to a lack of diversity in the health workforce, translating into a loss of productivity, avoidable absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs for businesses employing minorities.
"Without Hispanic leaders in policymaking roles within hospitals [and] pharmaceutical and managed-care organizations, Hispanic consumers don't have a voice," says George Zeppenfeldt-Cestero, president of the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Health and the Association of Hispanic Healthcare Executives. "It benefits these institutions to reflect the diversity of their communities, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the proper business approach. Then they get to know their constituents better."
To bridge the gap, some healthcare organizations have turned to other countries. This spring, about 10 nurses arrived from Mexico to help alleviate a shortage in Los Angeles-area hospitals. "Literally they've got positions waiting for them," says Jose Gonzalez, who spearheaded the recruitment effort. "It's all the different specialties – from the emergency room to labor and delivery, the intensive-care units, pediatrics, and [surgical] units."
Mr. Gonzalez, president and CEO of Cambridge Business Advisors in Pasadena, California, has negotiated agreements with four hospitals to recruit more than 90 nurses from Mexico whose education is equivalent to U.S. counterparts with four-year college degrees.
But experts say the longer-term solution ultimately lies in revamping the educational system in urban elementary and secondary schools. "Racial and ethnic minority students receive a K-through-12 education of measurably lower quality, score lower on standardized tests, and are less likely to complete high school," the Sullivan Commission report stated. For those who do graduate from high school, only about 11 percent of Hispanics go on to earn four-year college degrees, according to the 2003 U.S. Census.
Finding ways to improve Hispanics' performance on standardized tests is crucial to increasing their enrollment in schools of health professions, says Irma Ray, director of the nursing department at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ms. Ray notes that amid persistent faculty shortages, nursing schools must wade through numerous applicants. Significant weight is given to entry exam results, considered a strong predictor of performance during the first semester of nursing school when most dropouts occur. "You don't want to give limited spaces to those who are less likely to be successful," she says.
Many Hispanic students aspiring to medical school have had inadequate college preparation in math and science at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, says Abe Tomás Hughes II, chairman of the board at the Chicago-based Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement. "It becomes more difficult for them because they didn't have the very strong building blocks early in their education. Repercussions are incredible later on," he says, noting the alliance is working on mentoring programs and creating a network of Hispanic college graduates who can help develop a "pipeline of success" for others.
Hispanic students who receive guidance will reciprocate by helping others in similar situations, says Amelie Ramirez, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine's field office in San Antonio.
In 2000, Ms. Ramirez's quest to make a difference resulted in a multimillion-dollar nationwide initiative funded by the National Cancer Institute for prevention and control of cancer among Hispanics. The five-year program, "Redes En Acción: Cancer Awareness, Research and Training," also provides training and research opportunities for Hispanic students and scientists and aids Hispanic junior faculty with grant applications addressing issues such as the creation of tobacco cessation programs, assistance with continuing education programs for doctors in rural areas, and campaigns encouraging women to obtain early-detection screenings for cervical cancer.
"What we're trying to do is create a safety net to keep encouraging them along the way to become researchers," says Ms. Ramirez. "We're encouraging them to continue forward."
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