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Opinion

State of Latino Health: Dismal, and Invisible


Gotham Health Center

(photo via NYC Mayor's Office)


Latinos make up nearly a third of New York City’s eight million residents. But even though we are a large part of New York’s present and a rising population that’s crucial to the city’s future, we are completely invisible.

We are invisible in large part because we are different. And because of those joined factors, our health care is in a state of crisis. Compared to our fellow New York neighbors, we lack access to quality, culturally competent care, and we face a shortage of high-quality family care options. In fact, we sometimes encounter unique barriers that make us even more susceptible to illnesses than our neighbors and tend to experience worse health outcomes.

After decades of efforts to bring health care to underserved Latinos across the city, we set out to answer crucial questions: Why do great disparities in health care remain? And why do our families lack the health care services they need?

Why are Latinos far less healthy than our neighbors?

In a new report put out by my organization, a nonprofit network of over 2,000 providers who treat over 650,000 patients largely from lower income immigrant communities, we talked to hundreds of Latino doctors and patients across New York City to compile a first-ever poll.

We hope it spurs a movement.

We set out to bring to light health disparities and the cultural, economic, and institutional barriers that diminish access to even basic health care services -- leading to devastating health outcomes for many in our communities.

So what did we learn about the state of Latino health in New York City in 2018?

First, we learned that there is a wide gap between Latino patients and their physicians over what constitutes good health. While a majority of Latinos think they are healthy, their doctors disagree by vast margins. And only one-third of Latino patients think they are not receiving the care they need while two-thirds of doctors think Latinos experience persistent barriers to care.

Second, transportation and child care pose major barriers to health care access in Latino communities. Language is another major issue: in the Bronx, home to the city’s largest Latino population, only 10% of doctors speak Spanish, compared to 60% of residents. In fact, immigrants interviewed stated that language barriers kept them from telling their health care providers all of their symptoms – leading to unnecessary emergency room visits, avoidable crises, and uncontrolled chronic conditions.

Finally, too many health problems are going untreated in the Latino community. Smoking, asthma, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are prevalent problems but health education has not kept up and health education materials are often not available in Spanish. In addition, mental health and substance abuse challenges are stigmatized and remain taboo to discuss, going undertreated or even untreated.

In short, our report showed us that we have much more work to do to lift up and improve health outcomes in the Latino community, but we can make progress if we are willing to put in the work.

Together, by prioritizing community engagement, we can build and scale a sustainable architecture of innovation to confront and solve these problems. We can and must develop and sustain strong community, public health, and health care strategies to improve access to quality, culturally competent, and much needed care.

Additionally, we also need a serious investment in health education on the part of policy-makers to address not only these conditions but also the lack of health education resources offered. And language matters. Understanding these nuanced, culture-specific disparities will help us build a system that combines high quality with more effective care that reduces costs for patients, institutions, cities, states, and the federal government.

The Latino community is growing faster in New York than in Nevada or California. Over the next few years, through intervention, innovation, and integration, we will use the findings of this report to partner with the state and city to better deliver culturally-competent care and build a stronger, healthier Latino community in New York.

The need is urgent, the path forward clear – now it’s time for action.

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Dr. Ramon Tallaj is the founder and chairman of SOMOS Community Care.

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