Elena Rios

Working Harder to Improve Latino Healthcare


by: Latino Leaders Staff


Elena Rios, MD, MSPH is president & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA).  The organization’s mission is to improve the health of Hispanics in the United States. Rios is also president of the National Hispanic Health Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the National Hispanic Medical Association. In the following Q&A, Doctor Rios expresses her views on the importance of the NHMA, health concerns for Latinos in the U.S., as well as access to health care and wellness services.


What is your most relevant work and what were the repercussions?

My major achievement is the founding of the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA), a network of 50,000 physicians committed to improving the health of Hispanics. The NHMA Leadership Fellowship has trained 120 mid-career physicians nominated to leadership positions on WIC, Office of Minority Health Advisory Committees and medical faculty and hospital boards. NHMA has become an influential organization, supported for four years by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

NHMA has trained physician leaders to educate over 1,500 community leaders to promote targeted Latino community programs at New York, California and Washington, D.C., summits and NHMA annual conferences on early childhood obesity policies and programs to increase physical activity and improve nutrition habits. The results included a major media report highlighting programs and actions that families, schools, communities, health systems and governments can do, as well as networking opportunities with the U.S. Surgeon General and the first lady on their programs to reduce obesity.


What are the biggest health problems for Latinosin the U.S.?

The most pressing health concerns for Latinos in the U.S. include many not having health insurance and living with chronic diseases that cause disability and less functioning of daily activities. They also have limited access to or knowledge about services, and subsequently must rely on the family. Disease in our communities impacts the entire family.

These include some of society’s deadliest illnesses – cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer – especially breast, prostate and liver cancers – diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, influenza among the elderly, and now the Zika virus – not to mention emerging diseases that hit our communities hard. This is due, in part, to families and individuals living in densely populated housing with limited education about prevention, and especially not having public health programs targeted in our communities. They lack trusted messengers such as community health workers going door to door or programs in our schools and churches, and through our employers.

With our elderly getting sick with chronic disease, our families are faced with few services – home health services, meals, transportation and especially caregivers are not affordable, and the family members ultimately become our caregivers.


What are the biggest challenges in the state of health for Hispanics?

The biggest health challenges for Hispanics result from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among the major issues are access to health care and wellness services; government programs that support prevention and enabling services for the poor and middle class; and leadership and diversity in the health workforce.

Access can be increased through a combination of affordable health insurance and medical care/drug discount programs, government- subsidized clinics, cultural competence training of providers to decrease bias and discrimination in treatment patterns, and language services.

Prevention programs focus on education about healthy behaviors – not smoking, safe sex, physical activity and good nutrition – and on clean housing, air and water quality, chemical exposure, use of schools and parks for physical activity, and having fresh fruits and vegetables.

Since so many Latinos are not aware of how to live healthy lifestyles, there is a critical need for enabling services to help with caregiving of chronically ill patients. Elderly Latinos especially need transportation to the doctor’s office, meals, bathing and other activities of daily living. A bill introduced by Congresswoman Lujan Grisham, called Caregiving Corps, could help.

Lastly, with the demand for health care, there is a critical need for more Latinos overall in the health care workforce – especially in decision-making positions in the federal government and in the private sector so programs can be developed that are relevant for our families.