During Hispanic Heritage Month, we recall the many difficulties Latinos faced when they moved to the United States with hopes for a better life. These difficulties include limited access to health care. However, Latinos have contributed significantly to the practice of medicine in the United States, bringing a broadened perspective on the meaning of health and the practice of medicine, and working to increase access to health care resources. To improve health care outcomes for their communities, Latinos throughout history have promoted the idea that diseases bind the human race together, and that access to public health services is a measure of civilization.
The earliest recording of Latinos involved in science and medicine in the United States dates to the mid-19th century, when they practiced medicine in their communities using knowledge they acquired in their native countries—despite the fact that for many years, Latinos were actively discouraged from practicing medicine in their new country. For example, Felicitas Provencio, an expert midwife with more than 60 years of experience, was imprisoned in 1935 for practicing without a license even though she had always delivered children successfully.
As more and more Latinos arrived in the United States, they unfortunately often brought along infectious diseases like tuberculosis and small pox. But as more Americans traveled to Latin American countries during the country’s expansion, facing illnesses that were previously perceived as being exclusive to Latinos, the importance of understanding the etiology and the best treatment for tropical diseases increased. By the early 20th century, Latino physicians and scientists were collaborating with Americans to study tropical disease-causing agents like mosquitoes and hookworms. These efforts contributed to the democratization of medicine as more racial minorities arrived in the United States, each with their own set of endemic diseases.
By World War II, medical institutions were open to Latinos and a career in medicine was perceived as a gateway to economic independence and social respect. But there were still many hurdles for Latino physicians to jump, including remnants of institutionalized racism, which was evidenced by poor health among their Latino patients.
Jorge Prieto, MD, and Helen Rodríguez-Trias, MD, are two Latino physicians who embraced their social responsibility to improve health care for Latinos. Dr. Prieto helped create quality health care institutions to serve underserved populations in Chicago. In New York, Dr. Rodríguez-Trias worked to improve urban community hospitals and increased screenings of mothers and children with HIV, becoming the first Latina to be elected president of the American Public Health Association.
Latinos now earn about 4 percent of all doctoral science degrees, and about 6 percent of medical degrees, in the United States. While low, these numbers reflect a growing legion of Latino scientists and health care professionals who will keep advancing our understanding of health care disparities, and who will continue to break down the obstacles to health care access that affect so many today.
Related link on UMassMedNow:
Latino Medical Student Association tackling racial and ethnic health disparities