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Finding a Latino doctor can be difficult, a new study points out

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's a shortfall of doctors who are Latino. That's according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs. They are underrepresented in medical professions that require advanced degrees. Fabiola Plaza of the Latino Medical Student Association told Michel Martin that her immigrant mother's struggle to get medical accreditation inspired her to study medicine.

FABIOLA PLAZA: I watched her go through five years of failed residency applications, of getting rejected everywhere until finally, in 2010, she was accepted into a program. Unfortunately, that program was in Chicago, while my family and I lived in Florida. Being in South Florida, there's a large Hispanic population, and there's just not many Hispanic providers. And so a lot of people were able to confide in my mother and able to really establish a true connection with her. And so looking at the need for Latino doctors, I was inspired to go into medicine as well.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Could you talk a little bit about some of the challenges that people who are outside of this field might not understand?

PLAZA: First, going to college itself is a huge barrier. There is a large amount of classes that you have to take in order to be even considered for medical school. Besides those classes, you have to take an MCAT, and the cost to register for that exam is $350. And it's an eight-hour exam that takes months to prepare for, and they're thousands of dollars - for the preparation classes.

MARTIN: And then what about applying to schools? Are there costs associated with that?

PLAZA: Yes. And so for me personally, I think I spent around $5,000 applying to medical school. It varies from school to school, but it costs around $120 per application.

MARTIN: Do you think that cost is the main reason that Latinos remain so deeply underrepresented in the medical fields, especially among the physician ranks? Also, I have to point out African Americans are, too, and Latinos can be of any race.

PLAZA: Cost is definitely a major barrier for entering into the medical field. But I think, also, the lack of representation is an endless cycle of just - if you're looking into entering the medical field, you want to have mentors. There is already this lack of Latino physicians, and so there's this lack of Latino mentors that are able to help you get into this field. There's such a large rate of imposter syndrome within the Latino medical school community, just because you sit there and you just don't see anyone that looks like you, and you feel like, you know, do I truly deserve to be here?

MARTIN: What do you think it would take to improve the representation of Latino or Hispanic people in the medical field, especially at the physician level?

PLAZA: I think it starts in the middle schools and high schools. Inspiring young minds to enter into medicine through mentorship is a powerful tool. And starting at the high school level, you are then able to encourage these students and follow these students throughout their undergraduate studies and encourage them to keep pushing and to keep going to become a physician. The other thing is offering more fee waivers, offering more resources to students in order to apply for medical school and offering free courses for MCAT studying or tutoring.

MARTIN: That was Fabiola Plaza. She's a fourth-year medical student at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. That's in New York. And she's the vice president of communications at the Latino Medical Student Association. Fabiola Plaza, future Dr. Plaza, good luck with everything you're doing, and thank you so much for talking with us.

PLAZA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF REZIDENT'S "ARTIFACTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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