Dr. Edna Elvira Biddy, Dr. Brenda Green, Dr. Jose Javier Hernandez and Dr. Olga Meave share a certain bond with their patients. They all understand barriers within health care.
For their patients in medically underserved areas of the state, one primary barrier has been a shortage of physicians. After all, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines a shortage of primary care physicians as fewer than one for every 3,000 to 3,500 people – and California has 607 federally designated shortage areas, impacting a population of some 6.7 million people.
For the doctors, all trained in Mexico, the barrier has been a lack of U.S. licensing to practice medicine. They simply weren’t allowed to help people in the U.S. who needed it.
One program has benefited both the doctors and the patients: the UCLA International Medical Graduate Program. It helps legal immigrants with physician training — that is, those who have already graduated from a medical school outside of the United States, Puerto Rico or Canada — pass their U.S. licensing exams and obtain U.S. residency training in family medicine. In exchange, participants — once they’ve become residency-trained and licensed — provide care in underserved communities for two to three years after completing their family medicine residency.
For people in underserved communities, many of whom are Mexican immigrants, the impact of having a physician who understands not just their language but their culture is huge.
“Only 5% of California practicing physicians actually are Hispanic. Yet, 39 percent of the population is Hispanic,” said Michelle Bholat, M.D., executive director and co-founder of the International Medical Graduate Program. “What I think makes this special is our program has individuals themselves who are new immigrants to this country... They’ve been vetted through the same process of testing that a US student is asked to perform.”
And their ability to connect with their patients is undeniable.
“She knows how to communicate. She knows how you think, how you operate,” 57-year-old Jorge Preval said of his physician, Dr. Brenda Green, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I don’t know how she does it, but when I go to see her, she always figures out the problem. For me, she’s the best doctor I’ve had in my entire life.”
As for recent graduates of the IMG program, here’s what they have to say:
Dr. Edna Elvira Biddy, who recently completed a residency at Riverside University Health System and is returning to UCLA Health for a fellowship in geriatrics:
“I see it mostly in terms of culture. There are some things that are known to the Hispanic population, to Mexicans – and there are things that are proper to the culture – that maybe someone who just speaks Spanish wouldn’t understand. Knowing that I know the slang, people feel more open to discussing their problems and their medical conditions.... They feel grateful to have a doctor who knows not only their language but their culture.”
“I want to continue working for underserved communities. I know that the older patients are, the deeper their Latino roots and the less adapted to U.S. culture to they are.”
Dr. Brenda Green, who completed a residency with UCLA before heading to San Diego to fulfill her obligation to care for under-served patients, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune:
“Once you are interested in this type of thing, it’s hard to move to other medical systems. I’m hoping I’m staying here for the long run. ... I think they need me more here because over there [Tijuana, where she worked previously] everyone is on the same page.”
Dr. Jose Javier Hernandez, a first-year resident in the family medicine residency program at Adventist Health in Hanford:
“When I come into the room, they say, ‘I’ve never told anybody this -- but this is what I’ve tried.’”
“The need for medical care here is overwhelming. So many of my patients have avoided the doctor for years because of language and cultural barriers. Now, they know there is someone who can care for them who know the language, knows the cultures and shares their heritage. It’s so rewarding knowing how much of a difference I am making in their lives.”
Dr. Olga Meave, currently a third-year resident at the Rio Bravo- Clinica Sierra Vista in Bakersfield:
“People who don’t have access to care often are the ones who most want to be healthy – but can’t. It’s not a matter of wanting to be healthy, it’s a matter of not being able to.”
“Being able to establish rapport from the first visit and being able to understand what patients mean when they speak to you in slang makes them very comfortable. That makes them more interested in their health care. I get to see the mom, and the daughter and the husband and the whole family. They spread the word.”
Learn more about the UCLA International Medical Graduate Program.