July 9 2004

Commentary

More Medical Research on Hispanics Urgently Needed

Nation’s Well-Being Needs a Dose of Care From Presidential Candidates

By Dr. Elena Rios

WASHINGTON – As the presidential race heats up this summer, the candidates might want to consider the changing landscape of our nation and how one out of every six children is Hispanic.

What might be of particular interest to them is how that statistic will rapidly change to one in five. If the candidates are going to continue to cultivate new voters, they also might want to consider the research that is needed to keep that voting bloc healthy.

Although we as a nation spend more on health care than any other nation, that doesn’t necessarily transcend to better health for Hispanics.

Just ask working Hispanics in South-Central Los Angeles who can’t even afford to have their children vaccinated. Or Hispanics in El Paso, TX, who have cancer but ignore the symptoms and wait too long to see a doctor. Those are some of problems that could be eliminated with community-based research on Hispanics. Until researchers know the underlying causes at work, the medical community can’t remedy them.

It’s time for leadership. The presidential candidates should support increased funding for research on Hispanics. From that, they can develop a vision for programs and treatments that work and are unique to the Hispanic community. Given limited resources, a targeted strategy is necessary where the need is greatest – in the surging Hispanic population.

We hope the candidates will take a closer look at some of the bills before Congress and support them. Those bills promise to expand programs that address diversity, require federal agencies to gather and report data on race and ethnicity and create minority health offices. Bills – in particular by Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) – seek to eliminate Hispanic health disparities and call for providing community-based Hispanic health research.

The National Hispanic Medical Association applauds those efforts, because if these disparities continue, they could affect the health, productivity and well-being of future generations.

Understanding our Hispanic communities and their concerns begins with research that includes Hispanics, who now make up the largest minority group in the United States and could become the majority as early as 2025. Research including Hispanics has not kept up with the population’s growth. We need researchers who will pay more attention to cultural, language, immigrant and generational statuses.

Even now there is concern for alarm. The World Health Organization ranked the United States first on health care spending but 37th in supplying overall health care for its residents. Hispanic Americans didn’t fare as well. In addition, there are more than 100 medical schools in this country today but very few of them devote enough attention to research on Hispanics.

As a result, we encourage Congress to enlist NHMA, its foundation and research networks to develop training and culturally appropriate research methods, and to include Hispanic populations in clinical trials.

With more research, we can better understand health disparities. For example, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics have a lesser cancer rate but are more likely to die from it.

Language, socio-economic problems and culture all can play a role in the breakdown in delivering adequate care to Hispanics.

Health literacy also matters. Doctors who understand the differences of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, South Americans, Cuban Americans and other Hispanic groups can better treat their patients.

Our nation’s leaders – and future leaders – must call for research on Hispanics so doctors can better treat this growing population of patients, and so they can better understand the differences among Hispanic populations if we are to end racial disparities in health.

Dr. Elena Rios is president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, a nonprofit group representing Hispanic physicians in the United States.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage