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Latino Rx


The prescribing doctor's name should have been at the bottom of the prescription. Instead were the cryptic words Vestibulo de Arena. Hallway of sand.

Eventually, someone was able to trace the source of the mystery physician --- to a Dr. Sandy Hall.

That story got a few laughs when Luisa E. Baars of MAS Translation Services told it to a crowd of health-care professionals gathered for Rochester's first-ever Latino Health Care Symposium.

But it also underscored the fact that Latinos in Rochester face a tougher set of obstacles to health care access than most other groups. Language --- which unites the Latino community, and divides it from outsiders --- is just the beginning. Barriers like culture, religion, and poverty all add up to disparities in the amount and quality of health care Latinos receive.

And even with factors like age, gender, and incomes taken into account, the picture for Latinos remains grimmer than for any other group. "There is something wrong with the system that leads to disparities," Physician and Symposium Co-coordinator Dr. Carlos Ortiz told the crowd. Speaking later in the day, Dr. Andrew Doniger, director of Monroe County's public health department, acknowledged the same problem when he said, "The black mark that we have on our nation's health heritage is that there are disparities."

But disparities or not, Latinos are the nation's largest minority and fastest growing population segment. By 2025, Americans with roots in Spanish-speaking nations are expected to make up a 20 percent of the nation's population, and a quarter by 2050. Yet only 5 percent of physicians and 2 percent of registered nurses are Latino. "We as a nation can not afford ignoring these issues," Ortiz said.

The symposium's other organizer, University of Rochester Medical Center Dr. Gladys Velarde, says that making sure the region didn't ignore such issues led to the birth of the conference, which attracted attendees from across Upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania. "We are in a changing world," says Velarde. "The face of America is changing."

Those primary goal of the conference, she says, was "to make the Western New York community aware of the differences and improve these disparities."

One simple way she hopes the conference will help is by boosting awareness of local health-care opportunities, something she says the region lags in since its Latino population has been smaller than in other parts of the nation until recently. As part of the drive to increase awareness, the symposium included presentations by several local non-profits who work to help Latinos obtain quality health care.

But at least one person thought the symposium could have gone further. Hernan Escalante is outreach coordinator for the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, and the president of the board of directors of the Spanish Action Coalition. He believes the symposium was a good start, but didn't reach the people most in need.

"The people that need to be here aren't here; grassroots people," says Escalante. "Because they're the ones that would benefit from the services provided."

Those prospective beneficiaries weren't at Thursday's conference for a few simple reasons, he says: time, money, and access to transportation to a conference in one of Rochester's outer-ring suburbs. Those are some of the same issues keeping quality health care from Latinos in the first place.

"Why don't you come to us?" he asks.

Escalante is quick to say he's not disparaging the efforts of the symposium's organizers or the staffs of non-profits represented at the event. But as he talks about the challenges Rochester's Latino community faces, his gesture of frustration takes in the spacious, well-appointed room where his booth is set up.

Sure, he admits, some Rochester non-profits are doing excellent work. "But what about the for-profits," he asks, glancing across the hall to where some drug company reps are busy tidying up their display tables. Until for-profit health care companies are present in their communities, Latinos will continue to be the medical equivalent of second-class citizens, he says.