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Ethnic Doctors Take Leadership in the Fight Against Healthcare Disparities

New America Media, News Report, Jun Wang Posted: Oct 24, 2008

Editors Note: Because healthcare disparities hit ethnic communities especially hard, physicians find themselves in the role of community leaders and advocates. Jun Wang is a reporter for New America Media.

ANAHEIM, Calif. Dr. Albert Arteaga founded LaSalle Medical Associates, a chain of clinics committed to serving low-income patients and minority populations throughout San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Southern California for the past 24 years.

For his work, Arteaga was honored with the 2008 Ethnic Physician Leadership Award at the Ethnic Physicians Leadership Summit sponsored by California Medical Association Foundation held here October 18.

I want all of my patients to feel that going to the doctor is no more intimidating than going to the grocery story, Arteaga said. This is much easier to succeed in when our patients understand that we are here to answer any and all of their questions and provide them with individual recommendations based on their current situation.

More than 100 doctors like Arteaga, either from the ethnic community themselves, or whose work focuses on ethnic patients, discussed everything from electronic health records to promoting prevention in ethnic communities during the two-day conference.

Prevention is cheaper, said Dr. Satinder Swaroop, associate clinical professor at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine, who was moderating the panel on prevention. No matter who the next President is, this is important for him to know.

All the physicians on the panel advised that people come to see them before really getting sick. Exercise 30 minutes a day and smile twice a day, Swaroop suggested. All panelists agreed that simple preventative measures help patients from ending up at the emergency room, which results in saving money for the medical system.

However, Medi-Cal the insurance system on which a big portion of low-income and ethnic populations rely only pays for prevention visits of people over 65 years old, said Swaroop.

The National Healthcare Disparities Report published last year shows that a lower percentage of ethnic women over 40 years had a mammogram within the past two years than Caucasian women in every income level.

Medi-Cal is going nowhere, said Dr. Art Chen, medical director of Alameda Alliance for Health. Its the only profession whose reimbursement is going down while the inflation is going up.

Chen said ethnic physicians should be in Sacramento pushing for increase rates. He called on doctors to have their patients write letters to policy makers sharing real stories on the lack of service.

Non-white physicians had a much larger portion of non-white patients, said Dr. Robert Valdez, who is the executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy, as well as the associate director of Office of Community Health at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center.

He said that ethnic physicians must have creativity in one of the most difficult times of the economy, when we are facing severe healthcare disparities.

Chen said some Kaiser Permanente doctors practice group visits, where 10 or more diabetes patients come at one time to have a luxury one hour or more visit. In this setting, the doctor can give more complete information to the patients and answer their questions in detail, as opposed to rushed visits of a few minutes.

The language barrier is one of the main factors of healthcare disparity faced by the ethnic community. About half of ethnic patients use English as their second language, and 24 percent have limited English proficiency.

Doctors who are from the patients own ethnic community can serve their needs better. Over 70 percent of ethnic physicians and more than 90 percent of their staff interpret for patients.

Dr. Dexter Louie, board member of Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, said he has never refused to treat a patient no matter whether he has insurance coverage or not since he started his practice in 1977.

Louie considers his unpaid service over the past 31 years as a business cost. He said he knows a lot of doctors are doing the same thing, and this tradition is passing into the next generation of health care providers.

UC Davis medical student Tonantzin Rodriguez is actively volunteering in her schools program serving the underserved Latino community.

People come to us. If we cant help them, we have to refer them to other resources, Rodriguez said. Knowing that her own family often goes to free clinics, Rodriguez has the insight to help this community.

Every ethnic physician has to be a community leader, Rodriguez said.

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