New wave of treatment

The U.S. population has become incredibly diverse, but the workforce providing health care treatment and prevention does not reflect those demographic changes enough. A summer internship program aims to increase the number of racial and ethnic minorities in public health and policy.


The United States has an incredible arsenal of technology and knowledge available to help prevent, treat and cure diseases.

Vaccines and prophylactics that limit the spread of disease, regular physicals, health screenings and prenatal care, guidelines for proper diet and exercise, and laws regulating clean water and air all contribute to reduced infant mortality rates, extended life expectancy and improved overall health of the general public.

Yet, even in this society, segments of the population still experience a disproportionate rate of preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS due to racial, ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic factors.

Building awareness within these communities is often not enough, which is why federal agencies are pushing for more minorities to be recruited into health care to help treat these underserved populations.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became acutely aware of the fact that disparities are a serious public health problem,” said Beatrice Yorker, dean of the College of Health and Human Services. “One of the ways to address health disparities is to have professionals who are culturally and linguistically similar and sensitive to the populations they are serving.”

Approximately 36.3 percent of the population currently belongs to a racial or ethnic minority group: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian American, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

But the health care workforce does not come close to reflecting the increased diversity of the U.S. population.

In response, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established the Undergraduate Public Health Scholars Program to encourage more racial and ethnic minority students to pursue careers that will work in underserved communities and eventually take on leadership positions in public health care and policy. Its goal is to attract 1,000 new underrepresented minority students in five years.

As a Hispanic‒serving institution, Cal State L.A. has been tapped to recruit 20 students each summer for the program headed by Kennedy Krieger Institute, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, who reached out to the USC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, a partner on this grant.

Students in the program tour the CDC headquarters in Atlanta and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, take prep courses for graduate and medical school entrance exams and attend weekly webinars. In Los Angeles, they complete a 10‒week internship with agencies that treat underserved populations, such as El Nido Family Centers and AltaMed. They also agree to have their post‒baccalaureate careers tracked for years so the CDC may evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

Participants enlisted through Cal State L.A. for the 2012 session included rising juniors and seniors of black, Vietnamese, Samoan and Hispanic descent, such as Gabrielle Alvarado, a junior in the Honors College.

Fact: During 2004-07, the rate of preventable hospitalizations was higher among Hispanics, compared with non‒Hispanic whites.

Though Alvarado spent a lot of her youth volunteering at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center where her mother worked as a radiology secretary, she said the summer internship at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles brought new perspective.

“This experience increased my understanding of inequalities in public health because it opened my eyes to how many people are not receiving or seeking the health care that is needed or deserved,” said the exercise science major.

Alvarado assisted Dr. Carolina Pena‒Ricardo with research on children with disabilities and the treatment they receive in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. While shadowing doctors in the high risk and child abuse clinics, the importance of patient care and clear communication set in as she watched doctors examine and evaluate the children.

“In Los Angeles, there are a lot of Latinos and Asian Americans and there is a big language barrier, so I learned it helps to be bilingual depending on where you are and you need to have patience and be courteous,” she said.

Language barriers, cultural stigmas and lack of health insurance are just some of the factors that contribute to poor health outcomes and disparities. As a result, Alvarado is planning a study abroad session in Spain this summer to strengthen her language skills so that she can be effective in her target career as a physician’s assistant in free clinics.

“Volunteering is nice, but you don’t get a real hands‒on experience. This internship provided me different factors to consider when I’m in the health field,” she said. “I got to work with children and it confirmed that I want to help with underserved populations.”

Fact: African Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010.

That’s one of the statistics Cuitlahuac Pena learned during his summer internship at Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (L.A. CADA), a treatment and prevention program with outpatient services at five Los Angeles County locations.

Stationed at the North Hollywood facility, Pena primarily worked with African Americans and people living with HIV/AIDS.

“The North Hollywood facility tries to educate and empower predominately African Americans and gay or HIV positive people,” said Pena, an Honors College junior majoring in exercise science. “Many of these people are ostracized for being gay and African American. They’re all worried about living day‒to‒day instead of doing things like getting tested. So we want to make life easier for them.”

Pena attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, hearing testimonies and personal statements about everyday struggles with addiction. He also created and distributed a local resource map and guide for those who came into the facility for basic needs, like toiletries.

But this wasn’t Pena’s first experience with health disparities. While growing up in the largely‒Latino Lincoln Heights, he said there were a dozen fast food eateries in the neighborhood, but only one supermarket that stocked subpar produce, so people often disregarded healthy diet guidelines in favor of greasy food.

Pena wants to become a physician’s assistant to help communities like Lincoln Heights. He said people in underserved communities look up to medical professionals, so they have the ability to exert great influence on changing behaviors and identifying and reducing the factors that cause unnecessary gaps in health care.

“In the health field, there are physicians, medical doctors, dentists, optometrists and specialized areas. Public health ties them together. So if I have that educational background, I can have a greater impact, educate myself, friends and family and we might make this world a better place,” he said.