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Here in the United States, 25 percent of doctors are foreign-born. Many of them move from India or countries in the Middle East, few come from Latin America despite its relative proximity to the U.S. A program at UCLA is trying to change that as Jenny Gold reports.
JENNY GOLD, BYLINE: When Jose Chavez Gonzales moved to the U.S., he took any job he could get: cleaning houses, stocking warehouses, construction.
JOSE CHAVEZ GONZALES: I learned how to do a lot of things like flooring, walls, painting.
GOLD: He says the worst was working in a meat processing plant.
GONZALES: That's like the hardest job I ever had. I mean, I wouldn't mind doing any job except for that one.
GOLD: But Chavez, who's now 38, wasn't like most of the other immigrants he worked alongside. Back in El Salvador, Chavez was a doctor with eight years of medical training under his belt.
He came to the U.S. in the mid-'90s to be with his family. But like all doctors from other countries, he still had to pass the U.S. medical board and then go to residency if he wanted to practice here. And that can take a lot of time and money. During the day, Chavez worked. And at night, he studied.
JOSE CHAVEZ GONZALEZ: But I had to do it. And I wouldn't complain. I know it was going to be just a matter of time and, of course, medicine is my passion, but since I didn't have a license here, I couldn't practice it.
GOLD: Then one day his friend called and told him he'd seen something on the news about a way to help Latin American doctors living in the U.S. legally. The program would offer him a stipend along with classes, mentorship and references to help him find a good residency slot in primary care. In return, he'd work in an underserved area of California for three years.
GONZALEZ: That gave me the opportunity to stop working and focus full time on studying because without the program I would still be working in construction.
GOLD: The program was founded by Dr. Patrick Dowling at UCLA to help address the shortage of primary care doctors in the state. That's especially important because millions of Californians are expected to be newly eligible for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Dowling says it's key that Latinos see a doctor who understands their language and culture.
DR. PATRICK DOWLING: And you can either do total body CAT scans on everybody, or you can sit down and try to understand what the patient is saying and why and what's going on in their life.
GOLD: The program is small. But slowly, it's making a dent. Chavez was able to pass his medical exams in two years. Today, he's hard at work as a first year resident at the Riverside County Regional Medical Center. Most of his patients are Hispanic, and many are immigrants like him.
GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
GOLD: Graciela Jauregui came to the clinic with severe pain in her knee. She was born in Mexico, but she's lived in the U.S. for 17 years working as a housekeeper. She's 62 and doesn't speak English. She says she always prefers to see a doctor who can actually understand her.
GRACIELA JAUREGUI: (Foreign language spoken)
GOLD: All doctors are good people, she says, but when they speak Spanish, it's better. There are translators at the clinic, but they can be in short supply. And Chavez's boss, chief of family medicine, Geoffrey Leung, says medical details can get lost in translation.
DR. GEOFFREY LEUNG: No matter how good of a translator you have, your concern is that you may lose some part of the of integrity of the message.
GOLD: In California, Hispanics make up 40 percent of the population but only 5 percent of doctors. But Dowling says hundreds and maybe thousands of immigrant doctors from Latin America could be practicing but are instead working other - often menial - jobs. And that's a resource the U.S. can't afford to waste.
DOWLING: I was just reviewing an applicant this morning from someone currently working in McDonald's. And I thought the irony - she is serving people Big Macs right now, and what she could be doing would be, as a physician, explaining to people that isn't what you want to eat.
GOLD: So far, the UCLA program has placed 54 Hispanic doctors into family medicine training programs. Dr. Dowling says that's almost as many as it came from all 10 California medical schools put together. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gold.
SIEGEL: That story comes from a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.
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