Catalyst for Change

Story By: Frederick Jerant



President and CEO of National Hispanic Medical Association, Dr. Elena Rios, has dedicated has dedicated majority of her career to finding health care solutions for underserved communities.


Elena Rios, M. D. grew up in Pico Rivera, California, in a tract-home development that had replaced numerous orange and avocado groves. “My grandparents on both sides migrated from Mexico to Los Angeles,” she recalls, “and my parents actually lived across the street from each other in Lincoln Heights.” She was surrounded by her parents, four siblings, and dozens of aunts, uncles  and cousins -- a close-knit extended family.

She was one of the first in her family to attend college – her father was a machinist, her mother, a nurse at White Memorial Hospital – but had little idea of exactly what was involved when she applied. “I applied to UCLA, USC – and Stanford, the most expensive college in California. I figured the value of that education had to be outstanding if people were willing to pay so much to attend!”

Ironically, she earned a full scholarship to Stanford’s pre-med program, and her move from her little town to Los Angeles was eye-opening. “The Chicano movement was just starting, and it helped me understand more about how society works,” she said. And while her upbringing had been in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood, she lived in an all-Hispanic dorm.

It provided her earliest experience with networking. “I met many Latinos from different parts of the country, and we all supported each other in this new cultural situation.

It was like having a new family,” Rios said. One roomie’s father had worked closely with Cesar Chavez; other dorm-mates had relatives who were doctors, politicians and other professionals.

A Washington, D.C. internship during her junior year set her life on a different course. Her work in a private lobbying firm (designing a program that would encourage Hispanics and other minorities to enroll in medical school) helped her realize that she really wanted to be an engine for organizational change. Upon returning to Stanford, Rios left the pre-med program and earned her degree in human biology, with a minor in public administration. That’s how she learned about organizational theory, the concept of “the power elite,” healthcare ethics and similar topics.


But the seeds for her life’s passion began to bloom decades later, when a Stanford roommate – Maria Echeveste, who served as director of the office of public liaison and later as deputy chief of staff for policy in the Clinton administration – invited her in 1993 to come to Washington.

Rios soon became the advisor for Regional and Minority Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and later was the National Health Care Reform Task Force Coordinator of Outreach Groups at the White House.

Among her many duties in Washington was the arranging of conferences of medical professionals. “I would often have to obtain five prominent Hispanics for each session,” Rios  aid. “That could include physicians, medical school faculty members, administrators, nurses, and others.

“I found that, although separate national groups represented Hispanic nurses, mental health workers, dentists, doctors and other professionals, there was no national organization that

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could bring them together. In 1994, and a few physicians formed the National Hispanic Medical Association.

We wanted to build a network of health professionals who could help influence programs for Hispanic communities, to attain leadership positions, or positively influence policy in other ways.”

NHMA’s bedrock goal is improved healthcare, especially in underserved communities. “Health disparities exist because communities often have so many problems. Poverty, low education levels, crime, dilapidated housing, food deserts – these are all things that keep us from living healthy lifestyles. If you have a chronic condition, you need access to good doctors, and insurance to pay for them. That is why we do what we do,” Rios said.

Since its founding, the NHMA has grown to include over 50,000 licensed Hispanic physicians, and other healthcare professionals. Its numerous programs cover leadership development and networking with public and private officials; documenting critical information from Hispanic doctors and patients; and the mentoring and career advancement of medical school students, public health students, residents, and physicians. To help further its goals, the group formed the National Hispanic Health Foundation (recently renamed the National Hispanic Health Foundation).

“We renamed it to reflect its broader focus,” Rios explains; “which includes nurses, dentists, public health officials and other professionals.” The Foundation provides scholarships with an unusual requirement: “Recipients must participate in a mentoring program in order to keep the money,” she says. What’s on the horizon? Bringing even more diversity to the healthcare workplace and building the next generation of leaders in the healthcare field.

“We’ve found that many Hispanic medical school students are the sons and daughters of faculty members at those schools,” she says. “But very few guidance counselors in public schools actually promote medical school as an option for Hispanic students. That’s why it’s important

to develop leaders not only to help change policies, but also to get them back into hospitals, clinics, and schools to serve bas role models.” NHMA is also striving to be an information clearinghouse for Hispanic healthcare professionals. “We have created an acrosstheboard calendar of conferences to encourage attendance, and announce research opportunities. We also hope to collect each group’s professional documents and keep them in a central location for easier access by our members,” she said.

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NHMA’s national conference also presents leadership awards to Hispanic healthcare professionals, including social workers, dietitians, mental health workers, patient advocates, and others whose work makes real differences in their communities – whether at the national, state or regional level. The awards are intended to recognize their efforts, and to encourage them to continue pressing forward.

“I want to keep building the network,” Rios concludes, “and to continue the leadership programs. Those people will be the role models for the future. Some kids in college have professional parents, but most don’t, and so we lack role models.

“We need to break that cycle.”

Latinas, Leadership, HealthLLMComment