By India Ogazi
UTMB's Office of Communications

Health disparities in the Hispanic community are vast. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanics outrank non-Hispanic whites in cancer, obesity, asthma and low-birth weights.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health links the disparities in Hispanic health to language and cultural barriers, lack of access to preventive care and the lack of health insurance.

“There is a major disparity in health care providers as well,” said Dr. Norma Perez, director of the Hispanic Center of Excellence at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “There has been exponential growth of the Hispanic population, yet stagnant growth of Hispanic doctors.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report showed people of Hispanic origin are the nation’s largest ethnic group, representing 15.7 percent of the U.S. population. By 2050, that number is estimated to rise to 30 percent. In Texas, Hispanics represent 38 percent of the population. However, Hispanics represent only 5.8 percent of physicians in the United States.

UTMB’s Hispanic Center of Excellence is working to reduce disparities through the recruitment and training of culturally competent medical students and through faculty development. The center recruits undergraduate students to medical school and prepares them through a five-week pre-med Medical Careers Diversity Program. The Hispanic Center of Excellence also offers a bilingual health track with courses on Spanish medical terminology and a cultural competency course, among other programs to prepare physicians to serve Hispanic patients.

“The greatest benefit of the program for me is the mentorship I receive from Dr. Perez,” said Nathan Borgfeld, a third-year medical student at UTMB.

The center helped Borgfeld apply to medical school through the Medical Careers Diversity Program, while he was a senior at University of Texas-Pan American.

“I am the first person in my family to go to college, so I don’t have a lot of people I can turn to for advice,” said Borgfeld. “As the first in her family to attend college, Dr. Perez understands my struggles.”

Perez, a former practicing physician of Mexican descent, said: “I spend the majority of my time mentoring students. Many of the students we recruit have never left home, are the first to go to college in their family and don’t have a support system — so I offer them support through mentoring.”

The majority of the center’s students are Hispanic; however, the program is open to anyone with an interest in serving the Hispanic community.

Perez said that the cultural competency course, which she developed, shows students how to recognize, respect and accept the cultural differences of Hispanics. She said when she was a practicing physician she respected her Mexican patients’ beliefs in faith healing and was able to have them comply with her medical recommendations because of that respect. She teaches these same principles to students.

UTMB has a history of graduating Hispanic students with the first, Dr. Daniel Saez, graduating in 1921. Dr. Hector Garcia, a 1940 alumnus, went on to become a civil rights activist for Mexican-Americans. UTMB holds an annual essay contest in his honor.

UTMB has graduated more minority physicians than any other school in the state and has been ranked as one of the top five medical schools for graduating Hispanics and one of the best for Hispanics by Hispanic Business magazine.