LATINOS MAKE UP 36 PERCENT of the population of California but only 5.2 percent of practicing physicians. Meanwhile, immigrant doctors from Latin American countries work in the United States as technicians or nursing assistants because they don’t have a U.S. medical license. While talented human resources go wasted, the resulting gap in culture and language sometimes leads to serious communication problems that can harm patients.
The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Department of Family Medicine are trying to address this issue with the International Medical Graduates Program. The program, which is privately funded by such organizations as the UniHealth Foundation, the California Endowment and the Kaiser Community Benefit Fund, recruits graduates of Latin American medical schools who are living in the U.S. and prepares them to pass the required medical-board exams and compete for family-medicine residencytraining positions in California.
Such a program can provide a critical cultural bridge between patient and physician, says co-founder Patrick Dowling, M.D., chair of family medicine, increasing the number of bilingual and bicultural physicians practicing in the state. “To provide safe and quality care, a physician has to understand the patient,” he says.
The program was established in 2006 under the direction of Michelle Bholat, M.D. At present, seven graduates are in family-medicine residency programs in California, and another 10 to 12 will start programs in July 2009. Graduates of the program promise to spend at least three years after completing their residencies working in a medically underserved area, including cities and rural areas in California. Twenty percent of all Californians – and 35 percent of all Hispanics in the state – live in such areas. In addition, UCLA is working with health officials in Mexico to expand the program to train their medical-school graduates who wish to return to practice in their home countries, where there traditionally are shortages of residency opportunities.