Shared language, culture helps immigrant physician care for San Diego’s underserved

When it comes to sharing the most intimate details of your health, confiding in a physician who shares the same language and culture can sometimes make a critical difference.

In San Diego County and many areas of the nation, that kind of doctor-patient relationship can be hard to come by for immigrants or non-English speakers. For example, in San Diego County, Hispanics make up about a third of the population, according to census data. But only about four percent of the county’s physicians are Hispanic, according to 2013 data from the Medical Board of California.

At the same time, the U.S. is facing a doctor shortage that could grow to a shortfall of up to 95,000 physicians by 2025, a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges found.

To help curb that disparity, Dr. Patrick Dowling of the University of California Los Angeles helped found a program that trains Spanish-speaking immigrants who went to medical school in other countries under the condition that they work in California for several years in areas with doctor shortages, particularly those that have communities of Spanish-speaking patients.

When people immigrate to the U.S. with medical training from their home countries, they have to sit for three board exams in order to practice in their new country. Many end up switching to lower-skilled fields because their English is not strong enough for the exams.

“We have all these immigrant doctors up here doing construction,” said Dowling, co-founder of the International Medical Graduate Program. “It’s a brain waste in many ways.”

About 14 percent of San Diego County residents live in a federally designated health professional shortage area, according to data from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. Those areas include City Heights, Logan Heights, Lemon Grove, El Cajon, Jacumba and several neighborhoods in southeast San Diego.

Dr. Brenda Green, 33, an immigrant from Mexico…

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