Stories of the E.R.: A Journey of Latino Representation in Healthcare

“They are waiting in the family room”, is what I was told as I walked out of the trauma-bay at one of LA’s busiest trauma centers. “In the family room? Ok, I will be there in a moment” and took a deep breath as I collected my thoughts before going in to speak with a family from Guatemala who found themselves in my emergency department waiting to hear news about their grandmother. In my career I have found myself walking into many family rooms, hospital rooms, and clinic rooms to meet patients and their families for the first time. When I meet Latino patients and their families, I can see the relief in their eyes knowing they will be able to communicate with me, their doctor, not just in language but through an unspoken bond that builds on trust.

I almost didn’t get to this point. Like many, I nearly succumbed to believing stereotypes portraying Latinos as intellectually or physically limited. After all, no one I knew growing up was a doctor, not on TV, and those I met never looked like me. So, this idea of becoming one seemed such an out-of-reach dream. Especially when my high school counselors did not think I was smart enough or driven enough to get into college, but I did. Or “that physician” who thought I was not qualified to get into medical school, but I did. Or that attending who thought I would end up “being eaten by the lions”, while I accepted a faculty position. There were always people who didn’t see me, who don’t see us. Latinos have always been here, our lives often going unnoticed as we quietly contribute to the essential work around us.

As I reflect on National Hispanic Heritage Month, one thing has become evident—that we need more representation. In healthcare, there has been a growing body of evidence indicating that patients who share the same race and ethnicity with their doctor have better health outcomes. However, Latinos represent only 6% of all US doctors, but make up 19% of the US population, with some states like California having closer to 40% of the population being Latino. This gap was made more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when Latino’s throughout the country were hospitalized or died of COVID-19 at higher rates. Many tried to understand why this was happening. No, it’s not because we are sicker as a group. It’s because we don’t have enough representation in healthcare. When care is delivered with sensitivity and understanding of cultural influences and differences it can improve the experience and outcome of an individual, of a community. But this can only happen with cultural diversity and representation.

There is a whole movement happening among Latino physicians, National Latino Physician Day on October 1st championed by Dr. Michael Galvez and Dr. Cesar Padilla, bringing awareness to the fact that only 6% of doctors are Latino, with only 2% of those being Latinas. Social media threads from Latino doctors are filled with the message that we need more representation to help close the gaps in quality of care and improve health outcomes for our community. It’s this same message that has been so apparent while working at Zócalo Health—to care for our patients who are Latino, Latinx, Latiné, Afro-Latino. To show up, to make space for those younger doctors, to be an ally and a mentor. Our presence creates possibilities, and seeing ourselves reflected in the diverse roles breeds further opportunities.  

True change will only happen when we, as a collective, have the courage to support one another and help increase the representation, so more doctors can walk into that family room to communicate with their patient not just through language but through an unspoken bond that builds on trust.