SCHOOL MATTERS: Health Care Professions Need More Diversity

SCHOOL MATTERS: Health Care Professions Need More Diversity

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 SAN FRANCISCO -- California’s healthcare sector needs more minority students to ensure the wellness of the aging and diversifying state population, said three higher education leaders, who were honored last week at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club of California.

The three recipients -- Jeffrey S. Oxendine, Sandra P. Daley and Ronald D. Garcia -- of the California Wellness Foundation’s 2010 Champions of Health Profession Diversity Award were honored for their long-time efforts in assisting disadvantaged and minority students in the Native American, Latino and Africa American communities.

The award winners agreed that the state’s health workforce has failed to keep up with the diversifying trend of California’s population. In a panel discussion, they emphasized the importance of building diversity in the health workforce through education.

“The trend line of diversity in health professionals has laid flat over the years,” said Garcia, Latino program director at the Center of Excellence in Cultural Diversity at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Garcia noted that since 1995, about half of the students entering California medical schools are from upper-income backgrounds. Less than six percent have been from families in the nation’s lowest income group, “where many minority kids are from,” he said.

According to a 2008 University of California in San Francisco study, although 40 percent of the state population is Latino and African American, only 10 percent of the state’s doctors are from these two ethnic groups. The study revealed similar shortages in Asian subgroups, such as the Samoan, Cambodian and Hmong.

Garcia stressed that recruiting ethnic students into the health professions is the best way to make sure there are enough culturally competent and bilingual health professionals in the workforce to provide patients easy access to affordable and quality health care services in the future.

Oxendine, Native American director of the Center for Public Health Practice at the University of California at Berkeley, observed that health care professionals from ethnic backgrounds tend to be more motivated to serve their communities. He added that minority health professionals usually contribute positively to the quality and quantity of health services for ethnic groups, and improve long-term community wellness.

Oxendine was rewarded for devoting nearly three decades developing diversity in health professions. Apart from his work at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, he also co-founded Health Career Connection. That national nonprofit partners with health organizations that provide internships, which often lead students them to their first healthcare jobs.

“Health care is a growing economic sector,” said Daley, an African American director for the Health Careers Opportunity Program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She believes that the demand for health professionals in the state will grow significantly because of the rapidly aging population.

In addition, she said, the recent passage of the health care reform bill will spur the increase of career opportunities in health care because it will allow for greater coverage of health services. Health care is a good field for students, Daley said, because health services jobs usually remain in the United States and cannot be outsourced.

In the awards presentation, the foundation recognized Daley for recruiting of students from underrepresented and low-income communities to pursue health and science studies. More than 90 percent of her program’s participants entered college, and more than 30 percent of those who completed college continued on to graduate or professional school.

Daley explained that too few African American students sign up for college majors in health professions partly because they have low hopes of succeeding in those careers. Those perceptions usually stem from low expectations among parents, schools and teachers, she said.

That’s why Daley’s program reaches out to students as early as seventh grade to provide encouragement and mentorship from early teens through graduate school.

“Give them the vision, and follow their path,” Daley declared.

Garcia emphasized the importance of investing in community colleges. “Community colleges serve as an entry point for students with disadvantaged backgrounds, those who often are low-income and ethnic minority students,” he said.

Garcia was recognized at the awards presentation for starting a health-careers summer program at Stanford University a dozen years ago. The program enrolls ethnic students from community colleges and high schools to explore possibilities in health careers and connect them with role models in the field.

The foundation lauded Garcia for developing a college-admission procedure that considers the whole path a student applicant has taken. His approach takes into account the barriers and challenges students faced in their educational path, as one way to increase the diversity of the student population.

Garcia said he plans to continue advocating for more academic opportunities and smoother transitions to four-year colleges for community college students in health careers.

“I see lots of talent but not a lot opportunities,” Garcia said, adding: “Talents without opportunities are wasted.”

See what career opportunities are available for you at UCLA Health.