Pipeline for Hispanic Doctors

The country's only LCME accredited  for-profit medical school is working to increase the number of bilingual and multicultural physicians in the U.S.

June 2, 2015

There's a crisis underway in American hospitals and clinics -- the country faces a massive shortage of physicians as the population increases and grows older.

That crisis exists while the Hispanic and Latino population continues to grow, yet the number of Hispanic doctors declines.

In order to try to fix these problems, Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico and University Ventures announced today that they are partnering to train more bilingual and bicultural physicians. The goal of the partnership is to increase the number of graduates from the Ponce program who move on to medical residency programs. Ponce is the first and only for-profit medical school in the U.S. with Liaison Committee on Medical Education accreditation. LCME is affiliated with the American Medical Association. 

The partnership will seek to put more technology in the hands of students, like iPads to help deliver curriculum and assessments, and to create research labs to help with cancer treatment studies.

“The end goal is to increase the number of Hispanic physicians in the U.S. We know it's needed and we're almost trying to stop the loss more than anything,” said David Lenihan, president of Ponce Health Sciences University.

Lenihan said doctors benefit from having familiarity with Hispanic cultural characteristics that often play a part in their interaction with patients.

“The going about treating the patient medically is the same, but how you say it and what you say and how you read people is significantly different,” he said. “It's not about speaking Spanish, because a lot of people speak Spanish.”

Although neither Lenihan nor University Ventures would disclose how much of an investment is being made, the ultimate end goal is to encourage more bilingual and bicultural doctors across the field.

“We're making a lot of initiatives in creating relationships with U.S. hospital and partners, so they're even familiar with this competency at Ponce,” said Tatiana Goldstein, chief operating officer of University Ventures and chairman of the PHSU Board of Trustees. “We're helping our students have access to university residence programs.”

University Ventures is an investment fund that is focused on higher education innovation within institutions.

Part of the physician shortage problem is due to a nearly 20-year-old cap on federal support for doctor training, which has limited the growth in residency positions, said Tannaz Rasouli, director of government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The U.S. is facing a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians by 2025, including a shortage of 31,000 primary care physicians, Rasouli said. The group projects a need for 64,000 medical and surgical subspecialists.

“The primary factor driving an increase in demand is demographics. The population is growing. We have an elderly population growing and as they age they require more health care services, specifically primary care and specialty care,” she said. “Medical schools have been expanding their class sizes and receiving record-breaking number of applications, but graduates have to complete a residence before practicing independently, and that hasn't been keeping up because of the cap on federal support for teacher training at hospitals.”

It typically takes up to 10 years to train a new physician, so the problems behind the physician shortage would have to be solved now in order to avoid those 2025 shortages, Rasouli said.

“If we don't fix this now, the problems we're starting to see will become more widespread on a day-to-day level,” she said. “So more people will wait longer for appointments, which tend to lead to delays in outcomes and treatments.”

Lenihan said there are other universities, like the University of Oregon, that are working with PHSU to get more underrepresented minorities on their campuses.

Goldstein and Lenihan said they also want to make sure more hospitals and residency programs are aware that Ponce graduates can play a critical role in delivering health care. Lenihan stressed there can be some misconceptions about Puerto Rico, but that it is part of the U.S. and the medical university is one of the 141 medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

That accreditation should also ensure they aren't confused with the Caribbean-accredited medical schools, which some perceive to be less rigorous, Goldstein said.

For-profit ownership has been an issue at professional institutions, but Rasouli said the business model of a university doesn't matter as long as they're meeting the high standards of the LCME accreditation. 

“LCME is the gold standard for ensuring the quality of medical education program,” Rasouli said.


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