Caribbean Medical Schools Can Help Reduce Doctor Shortages in Hispanic Communities | Commentary

Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:58pm

Among some Washington policymakers and the media, there is an unfair bias against Caribbean medical schools. Caribbean schools specialize in training primary care physicians, who often return home to serve communities all across our nation. Many of these physicians are first turned away from medical schools in the United States because there are not sufficient openings to meet the high demand.

Regretfully, this bias against Caribbean schools misses a bigger point: There is a serious doctor shortage in our country that disproportionately affects people of color and approved Caribbean medical schools can help close that gap.

In my community of El Paso, Texas, there is a large Hispanic population of both immigrants and United States citizens. I have had close friends, family and neighbors all struggle to get adequate medical attention in a timely fashion. Our community lacks the basics of health care, including primary care physicians, hospitals and health care centers.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting more medical care in Hispanic communities is the lack of medical schools in our neighborhoods. In El Paso, we were able to successfully open the Texas Tech Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, but it wasn’t easy and we faced many challenges. Today, the facility remains the only medical school on the almost 2,000 mile long U.S.-Mexican border.

In the United States, Hispanics make up about 17 percent of the population. But according to recent statistics, from the 2012-13 school year, Hispanics made up less than 9 percent of students accepted at medical schools across America.

Many people in the Hispanic community believe there is a double standard for access to medical care in America. People in wealthy communities only have to wait a few hours for a doctor’s appointment and that population is well represented at American medical schools. While people in minority communities — lacking wealth and political power — have to wait weeks for medical attention and are grossly underrepresented at medical schools in the United States.

One way this nation can deal with acute doctor shortages in Hispanic communities would be to train more doctors. We simply don’t have enough spots in medical schools to educate the doctors we need. Every year, thousands of talented, qualified students who are hoping to become doctors are turned away, and many of these students come from minority communities like mine. Thankfully, some of those highly qualified students turned away by American medical schools end up training in the Caribbean.

Concerns about the quality of students trained in the Caribbean at regionally accredited colleges are unfounded. Doctors practicing in the United States, who were trained in approved Caribbean schools, are board certified exactly the same way as doctors educated in this country at the top medical schools. Studies show there is no difference between the quality of care patients receive from doctors who attended foreign medical schools and those who went to U.S. medical schools.

At the American University of Antigua College of Medicine (AUA), a top-tier Caribbean medical school, the majority of students go on to practice in primary care. At American medical schools, only about 20 percent of graduates practice primary care, instead choosing more lucrative specialties such as dermatology or radiology. This is an important distinction because in minority communities like mine, the greatest shortage of doctors is in primary care. A recent survey by the American Association of Medical Colleges — the association which represents most medical schools in the United States — says this nation must increase the number of primary care physicians, but the AAMC admits American medical schools can’t meet the goal.

Concerns that Caribbean medical schools cost more than their American counterparts is also off base. AUA costs about $33,000 per year. Compare that to Tufts University School of Medicine, where tuition is $56,000 per year, or the out-of-state tuition at the University of Illinois, which is more than $72,000 annually.

If communities like mine in South Texas are ever going to have enough doctors, we need more medical schools in under-served communities and physicians educated at quality medical schools in the Caribbean. My neighbors lacking adequate medical care don’t care if a physician was educated at Harvard or AUA. If they are good doctors and willing to practice in West Texas and the U.S.-Mexican border region or in other under-served and poor communities, we welcome their dedication, especially if they practice in primary care.

Silvestre Reyes is a Democrat who represented Texas’ 16th District from 1997 to 2013.