Fostering a New Generation of Latino Physicians in the Bronx

Dr. Juan Robles (right) is dedicated to helping and motivating Hispanic and African-American youths to pursue a career in medicine. (Photo provided to El Diario)

As is the case for many immigrants, starting a life in the United States was not easy for Dr. Juan Robles. He arrived in New York from Honduras when he was 13, speaking no English. Although his dream was to go to medical school, the number of obstacles he found in his way almost made him give up.

Still, after overcoming many barriers, Robles became a successful physician specializing in family medicine, and he currently works at the Montefiore Medical Center’s Family Health Center in the Bronx.

From there, he has been dedicated to helping, motivating and training Hispanic youths who, like he had, wish to pursue a career in medicine, a profession in which minorities are underrepresented, both in New York and at a national level.

Precisely for these purposes, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration granted Dr. Robles $1 million in funding to continue developing the coming generations of doctors among people from low-income communities.

“This grant will be used to help Latino youths interested in health careers and who are in the process of entering or enrolling in medical schools to advance,” said Dr. Robles, who is also an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“What this money provides them with is assistance in the development of skills and abilities here at Montefiore, and they receive guidance and information, basically so they can understand the complex process of entering medical school,” he added.

Few Latino doctors

According to experts, the country greatly suffers from a shortage of doctors and health providers who reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of minority communities.

In the case of Hispanics, current estimates indicate that only 1 in 20 doctors are Latino, even though 1 in every 6 people in the U.S. identifies as part of this group.

Studies say that this represents a health issue, as ethnic and cultural diversity among health providers leads to better communication and rapport with their patients. Moreover, this diversity strengthens medical research and helps reduce the inequality severely affecting poor communities.

For this reason, Dr. Robles wants to use these federal funds to – at least at a local level – relieve the existing inequality in the health care system (…).

Among the initiatives the Honduran-born physician has created is the Bronx Community Health Leaders (BxCHL). Co-founded by him three years ago, it facilitates the participation of young people from the local community – over 50 percent of them Hispanic or low-income – in volunteer positions at Montefiore’s Family Health Center. There, they learn important aspects of primary care for low-income people, and help patients navigate the health care system.

“This is a platform for these young people to develop their potential at the same time we help them get into a medical school,” Robles said.

“Some of them have already graduated college and are in the process of applying for medical school, but that process can be complicated and there are many obstacles, and that is where we are trying to help them. (…) Many of these youths are Latino – generally the first generation in their family to go to college – and they have never had a mentor or the guidance they need,” he added.

The doctor said that the process to enter medical school is difficult and costly because the application needs to be written in a very specific manner and because the standardized test required for admission – the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) – is quite expensive and many of these youths lack the resources.

Students also need references and must demonstrate certain skills, such as confidence and understanding of the health system. In addition, many Latino students do not have the opportunity to work as volunteers in hospitals or clinics, which prevents them from building the foundation they need to show that they can become physicians.

“I did not have the privilege of meeting doctors and performing volunteer work at a hospital as big as Montefiore. I did not have guidance, and the process was much longer for me. I was close to not becoming a doctor because I was denied entrance to medical school a number of times. I was only given one chance, and I ran with that one,” remembered the doctor, who started out in the health field as a volunteer interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients at Einstein Community Health Outreach, the first clinic coordinated by students in New York City.

“Mentors are very important in this process, because our students can become discouraged easily. I have seen many kids quit because they lack the support, the help and the guidance and do not see themselves represented by someone from their culture or race,” stressed Robles.

Benefits for all

The benefits offered by Dr. Robles’ program are not only visible inside Montefiore Medical Center but extend across the entire community. Most of the patients who visit the clinic are Latinos and African Americans living in marginalized or low-income neighborhoods. (…)

At the moment, said Robles, nearly 60 students are actively participating in the program and performing volunteer work at Montefiore Medical Center.

“We are demonstrating that Latino youths in the Bronx have a lot of potential and talent, and that they can be the next generation of doctors,” concluded Robles (…).

A spokeswoman for the Montefiore Health System said that, so far, 16 students from the BxCHL program have enrolled in medical schools across the country, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and New York Medical College.

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