Health Professions Requiring Advanced Degrees Have Few Latinos

New GW study shows that Mexican Americans are the most underrepresented Latino group in occupations such as doctor and dentist.

July 24, 2023

GW researcher Indira Islas

Indira Islas, who conducted the study while a graduate student at the Milken Institute SPH, said “other evidence suggests that the findings can be attributed to obstacles such as structural racism.”

Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, remain underrepresented in U.S. health professions that require advanced degrees, according to a recent study by George Washington University researchers.

The study, the first to examine the representation of the four largest Latino populations in the U.S. health workforce, and its findings raise concerns about the lack of diversity in the U.S. health workforce. The study, “Documenting Latino Representation in the US Health Workforce,” appears in the July issue of Health Affairs.

The research revealed that Mexican Americans, despite being the largest Latino subpopulation in the United States, are greatly underrepresented in the health professions that require an advanced degree. One out of 10 people in the United States are Mexican American yet in five of the eight professions requiring advanced education included in the study, Mexican Americans represent one-quarter or less of the professions. This study suggests they and other Latinos in the study face many barriers to occupations in the health care field that require an advanced degree such as doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

“Our analysis did not address why Latino representation was low in the health professions requiring advanced degrees,” said Indira Islas, who conducted the study while a graduate student at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Other evidence suggests that the findings can be attributed to obstacles such as structural racism.”

Islas and her colleagues at the GW Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity used data from the 2020 American Community Survey, which includes information on ethnicity collected by the Census Bureau. The team compared the representation of non-Latinos and four Latino subgroups, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans and other Latinos.

The research showed a surprising finding for one subpopulation. Compared to other Latino groups, Cuban Americans are well-represented in the advanced degree health professions. For example, their representation among physicians and dentists is greater than their numbers in the overall population.

The study also found that Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos were overrepresented in most health care support occupations, low-wage jobs such as medical or dental assistants or home health aides.

It did not come entirely as a surprise to Islas that Latinos are underrepresented in advanced education professions. But the numbers for Mexican Americans were startling. “It’s not good. It’s not good at all,” Islas said. “When we really saw the numbers, it was something that automatically caught our attention and deserves the attention of anyone reading the study.”

Latino representation in the health workforce did show improvement during the time frame studied from 2016 to 2020. For example, Latino representation among recent graduates went from 6.7% to 13.5% for health professions requiring a bachelor’s degree. However, the researchers note that Latinos represented more than 21% of the population ages 20-35.

“There has been significant progress in getting more Latinos into the advanced health professions over the last few years,” Edward Salsberg, co-director of the Health Workforce Diversity Initiative at the Mullan Institute, said. “Yet as we can see from this study, much more needs to be done to strengthen and diversify the health workforce in the U.S. A lack of diversity among the health professions can exacerbate health disparities for Latinos and other minority populations.”

Islas, whose family came to the United States when she was a child, has experienced some of the obstacles to getting an advanced degree firsthand. 

Her parents, who were doctors in Mexico, had to find work in factory jobs when the family moved to the United States when she was 6 years old. “I remember in high school we didn’t have a lot of resources,” Islas said. But Islas had a dream of becoming a doctor like her parents, and she ended up getting a scholarship and went to college. In May 2022, she graduated from GW with a Master of Public Health. She is now doing a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute with plans to apply to medical school in the fall.

“It’s been my lifelong dream and something I am passionate about because I want to see other people realize their dreams,” Islas said.

The research was funded by the California Endowment and the Josiah Macy Foundation.