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Vol. LXI, No. 25
December 11, 2009

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What Kind of Country Are We Going to Be?
Suarez, Molina Speak on Hispanics, Health, Hope

  PBS correspondent Ray Suarez recently spoke at NIH.  
  PBS correspondent Ray Suarez recently spoke at NIH.  

With a bracing assessment of the nation’s health inequities and a plan for action, journalist Ray Suarez and physiologist Dr. Patricia Molina recently visited NIH as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Suarez is the Public Broadcasting Service’s senior correspondent to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer; Molina chairs the department of physiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans and serves as executive vice-chair for the National Hispanic Science Network. Their back-to-back talks, sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and the Hispanic employment committee, filled Wilson Hall.

“This has been an incredible time watching America’s demographics,” said Suarez, “figuring out what kind of country we’re going to be in 2020…and beyond.”

At 15 percent of the nation’s total population, Hispanics are currently the largest U.S. minority. In part because of high levels of immigration from Latin America, by 2042 the U.S. will be a “majority-minority country”—that is, U.S. minorities combined will outnumber the non-Hispanic single-race white population.

“Latinos, foreign-born and native-born, will make up a third of the population of the United States by 2050,” Suarez said. Meanwhile, in our “national yelling match” over health care, “we’re telling ‘covered’ citizens about the way the other half lives, and what that means for the rest of the country.”

Latinos, Suarez said, are linked by both predisposition and lifestyle to hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. They also tend to work in low-wage jobs without insurance or collective bargaining agreements. Meanwhile, they vote less, register to vote less and contribute to campaigns less than other groups do.
LSU’s Dr. Patricia Molina serves as executive vice-chair of the National Hispanic Science Network.
LSU’s Dr. Patricia Molina serves as executive vice-chair of the National Hispanic Science Network.

Such conditions cascade into poor health outcomes. For example, Latinas have cervical cancer rates three times higher than that of other Americans.

Self-care and healthy lifestyles have their merits but can’t compensate for being “underfunded, underdoctored and underclinic’ed,” said Suarez. When Latinos eventually do receive treatment, it proves lengthier, more costly and less effective.

America’s stake in this problem is real, Suarez insisted, and we can’t pretend it’s not. We hear “a steady stream of invective aimed at immigrants,” he said. “Yet the Social Security checks of many of you will be funded by the payroll taxes of an increasingly Latino workforce…We can’t separate out Latino statistics as something separate from the American whole.

“You beat the odds,” he told the audience, “but too few of us are graduating high school. Some years the numbers of Latinos who receive Ph.D.s in the hard sciences can be counted on your fingers and toes. It’s disastrous.

“The needs are enormous,” he concluded, “but until there’s the political will and a much greater appreciation for the role Latinos are going to play in the next version of American society…we will not get where we need to be.”

Dovetailing with the issue of needs, Molina brought a message of hope.

Hispanics are indeed severely underrepresented in the health care work force and scientific research—as are all minorities. For example, Molina said, in 2005 less than 13 percent of medical school graduates and less than 9 percent of nurses came from minority groups (combined). Along with the pipeline/workforce problem and issues of access, minority groups also tend to suffer from diseases such as diabetes at disproportionate rates.

“If you speak Spanish,” said Molina, “you may get a perfect [patient intake] history, but is that it? Is that the only reason why it’s important to have a diverse workforce?

“Studies show,” she continued, “that the approach, the perspectives, the solutions we can achieve with a heterogeneous group will be superior to a homogeneous group…Yes, a heterogeneous group has more conflict, but it’s more creative, more productive and yields higher quality ideas.”

A diverse team extends networks, increases access and should also increase capacity.

“This is not a novel idea,” she said. “Remember Star Trek?” Molina showed a slide of the ship’s crew members to appreciative audience laughter. “Well, they contributed diverse stuff,” she said. “So is NIH one of those spaceships floating lost in space? No, NIH recognizes it must recruit the most talented researchers from all groups.”

By enhancing the training environment, she noted, we balance and broaden our perspectives in setting research priorities and improve subject recruitment from diverse backgrounds into clinical research protocols.

Molina laid out her action plan. First, recruit students and foster their development with mentoring plans. This will lead to more students and faculty from Hispanic and other underrepresented minority groups. How? By using transdisciplinary teams such as the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse.

With over 300 members, she said, this network aims to foster the next generation of Hispanic scientists in drug abuse, especially in the realm of translational research. The NHSN strategic plan includes an evidence-based guide for health care providers and an annual national conference, summer training institute and multiple mentoring activities.

Outreach is essential, she said. The three key aspects are to recruit and mentor, because “students from minority populations have to be mentored”; to develop leadership skills in these students—“they’re not just peons”; and to provide strong role models.

“We have succeeded when we have infiltrated this very elite society,” she said. “When a student comes up to you and says, ‘I want to be like you,’ it’s worth every hour spent. So pass it on. NIHRecord Icon

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