“When I was a young student, my mother was working as a secretary at a community hospital. Seeing the enthusiasm of the entire staff, I realized that I, too, wanted the opportunity to help people.” - Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, FACP
As the President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA), which represents the interests of the nation’s 50,000 Hispanic licensed physicians, it is Dr. Elena Rios’ goal to improve the health of all Hispanics. “And we do that primarily by empowering Hispanic and Hispanic-serving physicians,” she says. “We are dedicated to encouraging and supporting Hispanic physicians to be leaders who will help eliminate health disparities.”
The Doctor Is In
Today, as an internist and through her role as CEO of the NHMA, Rios has been focused on growing the impact of the organization she incepted and has been committed to since 1993, when she worked with three fellow students to create an advisory committee made up of doctors from across the country. “Within four years, we had developed a national organization with the NHMA. For those first four years, it was truly a volunteer effort,” Dr. Rios says. “After working for the federal government as an advisor for regional and minority women’s health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I understood the importance of input from our communities for a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, which Hispanics are disproportionately impacted by. I knew we had to do more.”
Dr. Rios knew how important it was to start a network to identify doctors who take care of Hispanic patients: Doctors that share their patients’ culture and who understand the hesitancy around seeking support, as well as Hispanic/Latino family dynamics. Importantly, Dr. Rios is focused on how to communicate with patients and their families. “I left the government to get the NHMA’s infrastructure off its feet. We developed programs that were focused on sharing experiences and best practices, and learned more about how doctors were helping their patients. We then began to work on a leadership development and mentoring program so that we could pass this information on to generations of young doctors.”
As the NHMA has taken important measures to address health inequity impacting communities of color, Dr. Rios has helped improve pathways for aspiring Hispanic students looking to enter the field of medicine. Even before her own training began, she worked to improve recruitment and success rates of minority students in U.S. medical schools, turning her voluntary work with students into a large-scale national effort. When enrolled in the school of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, she counseled applicants, serving as director of a statewide outreach program to encourage minority high school and college students to pursue professions in health care.
“In my own college experience, when I declared I was a pre-MED student at Stanford, I met fellow Hispanic students from Los Angeles, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, Northern California and the Northeast,” Dr. Rios shares. “As I met these students and more students from a variety of other backgrounds, what most impressed me was the fact that I was part of an organization that was culturally aware.”
Partnering to Fight Alzheimer's in the Hispanic Community
Today, the Alzheimer’s Association and the NHMA are working together in order to increase awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and all other dementia in Hispanic and Latino communities, providing culturally-informed care, programming and training services. “This partnership will help educate physicians and their patients, improving caregiving in Latino families,” says Dr. Rios.
The NHMA now has 17 chapters that network at all levels, including locally, to create and share resources benefiting the Hispanic community. “By sharing knowledge, participating in educational webinars, and having open discussions from the Hispanic perspective about Alzheimer’s disease, we will help create more awareness of the needs of the Hispanic population,” says Dr. Rios, “and get people the support services they most need.”
Awareness initiatives between the Alzheimer's Association and the NHMA include an Alzheimer’s and dementia education program, offered in English and Spanish, as well as collaboration on the Alzheimer’s Association’s New IDEAS Study clinical trial, recruiting 2,000 Hispanics/Latinos participants. Learn more.
About: Dr. Elena Rios studied biology and public administration at Stanford, later earning her M.S.P.H. in health planning and policy analysis from UCLA. Dr. Rios has been appointed to government-led research initiatives including the 1993 White House National Health Care Reform Task Force. In 1998, Dr. Rios became president of the National Hispanic Medical Association and CEO of Hispanic-Serving Health Professional School, Incorporated. She is a trustee at the New York Academy of Medicine.
Hispanic Americans and Alzheimer's
The National Hispanic Medical Association