Dr. Michelle Bholat with several of her students – immigrant doctors who will help bridge the gap between Hispanic patients and the care they need. (Photo/Courtesy UCLA)

In California, immigrant doctors fill the Latino physician shortage


In the years since Dr. Michelle Bholat first began practicing family medicine, the need for Latino doctors serving Latino patients in her home state of California has grown exponentially. According to statistics published by UCLA, only five percent of licensed doctors in California are Latino in a state that is nearly 40 percent Hispanic – indicating a severe shortage of primary care physicians who have both the language and cultural connection to care for Hispanic patients.

“In health care, it is important to be able to communicate your story – that’s how we as physicians get our diagnosis,” explains Dr. Bholat, who is Mexican American and currently serves as the executive vice chair of the Family Medicine unit at the University of California Los Angeles. “So my early challenge became, how do we get more Latino doctors practicing in areas that need primary care the most?”

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The answer lies with the immigrant doctors. In the United States, more 25 percent of doctors are from foreign countries and primarily from the Middle East and India. “Very few,” immigrant doctors are from Latin America, says Dr. Bholat, and over the last few years she has made it her mission to create a pathway for Latino doctors to practice in the United States – thereby closing the healthcare gap for Hispanic patients, one immigrant doctor at a time.

Immigrant doctors are a solution to closing the health care gap among California's Hispanic population.

Immigrant doctors are a solution to closing the health care gap among California’s Hispanic population. (Photo/Courtesy UCLA)

The UCLA International Medical Graduate Program – founded in 2006 by Dr. Bholat and her colleague Dr. Patrick Dowling – gives doctors trained in Latin America an opportunity to focus on studying and undergoing training for U.S. licensing. The program offers participants test preparation classes, English courses, a clinical observership and a stipend; the U.S. medical board exams alone amount to three thousand dollars and are an expensive undertaking for immigrant doctors. After completing the exams, program participants apply for a three year medical residency, which is required for practicing in the States.

“I came from the trenches myself, and I know how hard it is to graduate from high school, college and get through medical school,” says Dr. Bholat, who supported herself as a teen mom, graduating from community college before attending medical school at the University of California Irvine College of Medicine. “But the number of Latino physicians wasn’t going to grow overnight. We looked at the immigrant physician, because he or she is already here and is passionate about medicine. By helping ease the roadblocks ahead of them, we are helping to close the health care gap in the communities that need it most.”

Upon graduating from the program, IMG participants must serve in one of California’s medically underserved areas for two to three years. In some Los Angeles clinics, there may be as little as two physicians for 4,000 Hispanic patients; underscoring the severe shortage for Latino doctors.

“My passion is for helping people,” says Abril Arias, a physician and graduate of the IMG program. Dr. Arias attended medical school in Tijuana, Mexico and without the program, wouldn’t have been able to afford to focus solely on her studies to attain U.S. licensing. “There are many of us bilingual doctors, who want to focus on serving Latino communities here but find the process of taking the boards and getting a residency so expensive and time consuming.” Now, as a third year resident at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, Dr. Arias has focused on caring for Hispanic populations and intends to spend her career doing so.

Dr. Arias represents the type of graduate Dr. Bholat hopes the program will be known for. She receives  8 applications for every slot in the highly competitive program and to date, the program has placed 54 Latin American doctors into family medicine training programs – nearly as many of the number of Hispanic doctors across all ten of California’s medical schools together.  And the program’s graduates – who hail from countries including Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Argentina, El Salvador, Cuba and Venezuela – have the traits that make immigrants so valued in this country.

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“They are willing to work to the bone to do what’s needed,” says Dr. Bholat of her program’s participants. “And to them, what we offer is a life line – without the stipend that we offer, these are immigrants that otherwise would have been meatpackers, construction workers and factory employees.”

And those are the traits – hard work, dedication and empathy – that make her doctors among the best in the state.

“You’re able to communicate with patients better by understanding their culture, their language and needs,” says Blanca Samira Campos, a program graduate who received her medical degree in Costa Rica. Dr. Campos – who is originally from Belize – now works in a low-income, predominantly Latino area of southern California and says she’s now “able to work with the people that need my care the most.”

And that’s a privilege that Dr. Arias says can’t be underestimated.

“Truthfully, because I am from Mexico, I can relate more to all of my patients,” says Dr. Arias. “There are so many misconceptions about Latinos and little things that are missed in translation.”

“It’s my joy to take care of patients. And the way they say ‘thank you for paying attention to me’ is worth more than anything in the world.”

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