From Translator to Aspiring Doctor: Reducing Health Disparities at the Baylor College of Medicine

It’s been a tough year for the city of Houston. The largest city in Texas is currently grappling with a major outbreak of the coronavirus, especially among Latinx and African American communities, a trend we’ve seen play out across the country.

The city is also home to one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country, Baylor College of Medicine. As a first-year medical student at Baylor, Ayleen Hernandez hopes to reduce health disparities among minority Americans. The school recently welcomed the most diverse class of medical students in history, a promising sign for the healthcare industry at large.

Find out how Baylor College of Medicine is trying to correct these health disparity trends by bringing on a range of minority medical students.

Speaking Up for Minority Patients

Ayleen Hernandez didn’t always want to be a healthcare provider. Growing up in Houston’s predominately Hispanic East End neighborhood, she didn’t see a lot of doctors that looked like her. Her parents don’t speak English, so communicating with local physicians hasn’t always been easy. She would often serve as a translator in the exam room as her parents tried to communicate with the doctor.

Looking back on the situation, she says, “It would have been helpful to have a Latinx physician be able to see them, but I think me being in that role of a bridge is what planted the early seed for me to look into healthcare as a potential career.”

After these experiences, Hernandez was anxious to make the industry more inclusive. As a first-generation college student, she received a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology with a minor in Chicano/Latino studies from Pomona College in California in May of this year, before ultimately enrolling in the medical program at Baylor College of Medicine in July.

During her training in California, she volunteered as a health insurance broker, particularly for non-English speakers. She would translate and do her best to help minority patients make sense of the billing process.

“A lot of the times there, I would see Latinx patients who were uninsured and were really scared to be there to begin with, but as soon as I introduced myself in Spanish as Ayleen Hernandez … I saw their shoulders relax, their facial expressions relax. They weren’t so scared to be in the ER anymore, especially being uninsured.”

This is a great reminder that having a doctor, nurse, or translator who looks like the patient can help them feel more at ease in the exam room. It’s also vital to have providers on staff that speak Spanish, especially in a city like Houston, where Hispanics or Latinos make up around 44% of the local population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For Hernandez, the decision to become a doctor was inevitable. “Seeing those interactions and how it bettered their outcomes in the ER made me realize that if I can have this impact as just a volunteer, I can only imagine the impact I could have as a physician.”

Now that Hernandez is getting ready to take on medical school, her parents can’t stop sharing the news. As she told a local news station, “They have been shouting it from the top of their lungs, calling family in Mexico, telling our neighbors, they couldn’t be prouder.”

Welcoming the Most Diverse Class Yet

Hernandez won’t be the only sprinkling of diversity to join Baylor College of Medicine’s class of 2024. In fact, it’s the most diverse class in the school’s 120-year-long history.

Of the 186 incoming students, 25% are from minority communities, including 33 Latinx and 14 black students, marking an 80% increase in diversity from the year before.

The school is excited about unlocking new opportunities in the field of medicine. Jennifer Christner, M.D., dean of the Baylor College of Medicine School of Medicine, commented on the news, “Patients who have doctors who look like them tend to follow advice more and can be healthier. That’s why it’s really important when you’re making these very personal health choices that you have somebody you trust—sometimes that means having somebody who looks like you.”

Currently, just 5.8% of active physicians are Latinx and just 5% are black, but Baylor College of Medicine is moving the industry in the right direction. Data also shows that minority medical school graduates tend to go on to practice in underserved, minority communities.

Administrators of the program say this change didn’t happen overnight. It took years of building bridges with local minority communities. It’s about showing young people of color that becoming a doctor isn’t just a dream, it can become a reality.

Having more providers of color in the field will benefit the industry in more ways than one. It reduces distrust among minority patients, thus improving health outcomes and reducing costs. This can also help providers and researchers recruit minority patients for vaccine and drug trials, so the industry can make sure these products benefit black and brown patients just as much as they do white patients.

Considering the toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color, Hernandez and her peers want to address these concerns head on. “I want people to take some lessons from this and really see that we can’t help to sacrifice any lives by ignoring these health disparities any longer,” she said.

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