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Domino Effect Keeps Minorities Out of Health Care Professions

New America Media, Commentary, Al Hernandez-Santana, JD, MCP Posted: Aug 22, 2009

It should come as no surprise to anyone that California needs more health care workers. There have been numerous studies coming from health care providers, government agencies and others warning us of the pending crisis that may finally collapse our overly burdened health care system. The straws that will break our systems back will be an aging population with increased needs and a growing population comprised of young families with children. While these factors are not in themselves a problem, the truth came out in a recent study on students preparedness to enter the health care field.

According to the report "Meeting the Challenge: Are students prepared to meet Californias health care needs? A Review of CST Scores of Seven California School Districts" (Philliber Research Associates, 2009), high school seniors scored below the national average level in math and science proficiency, subjects that are the core curriculum in training for careers in health.

The study found that students in the school districts of Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco, the states most populous geographic areas and those with the highest healthcare workforce needs, are ill-prepared to meet the demands and skills necessary for future career opportunities in the health care industry. Not only are we failing our students and California residents in general, we are squandering the opportunity to groom our diverse student population to become healthcare workers with the cultural and linguistic capabilities to work in underrepresented communities.

While Latinos represent 35.5 percent of Californias population, they only represent 5.2 percent of physicians, 5.7 percent of registered nurses, and 7.6 percent of psychologists. African Americans represent nearly six percent of Californias population, yet only 3.2 percent of physicians and 4.5 percent of registered nurses.

This underrepresentation of minorities in the medical profession starts early in life. The report highlights that a chain reaction beginning with poor fundamental knowledge in math and science at elementary and early secondary levels extends throughout a persons educational life. After struggling with poor fundamentals, a majority of high school students opt out of math and science courses beyond the required basics. College students do not matriculate into science, technology, engineering or math-related fields, and as a result, fewer professionals are entering the workforce as scientists, health care providers and other science or math-related professions. This domino effect is a leading factor resulting in the current shortage of health care workers.

The demand for a diverse health care workforce including nurses, doctors and more than 200 allied health professions that will continue to rise as our population grows and ages. In the next three years, more than 50,000 jobs will be available in the health care industry in Los Angeles County alone and nearly 20,000 will be created by 2012.

While California lawmakers are aware of the pending health care crisis, there is currently no effort in place to increase the number and diversity of the health professions' workforce. Similar to what currently exists for higher education, California needs a master plan on health care workforce diversity. Numerous professionals, organizations, and institutional forces are converging to address the lack of diversity in the health workforce, but coordination is limited among these efforts. A state-coordinated effort would increase opportunities by identifying new allies and reduce the inefficient use of limited resources.

Iowa and Wisconsin have begun to develop comprehensive health workforce plans. California can join this national movement and help pioneer efforts in the development of a health workforce master plan. The master plan needs to focus on Californians current and future healthcare needs and the impact or implications from our inaction. Moving forward, the elements of a master plan must incorporate ongoing dialogue between K-12 and community colleges, California State Universities, the University of California, and private postsecondary colleges. In addition, connections to existing employment and training opportunities are crucial to utilize current resources.

Californians deserve to have a health workforce master plan. Not only should every child be given the access and opportunity to pursue a career in the health profession and other technical careers, but our entire adult population as it grows and ages, deserves to receive quality healthcare services when needed.

Al Hernandez-Santana, JD, MCP, is executive director of Latino Coalition for a Healthy California

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