Diversity Summit keynote Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, shares what guides her career focused on minority health

A headshot of Dr. Elena Rios, the Diversity Summit keynote speaker for 2021. Elena V. Rios, MD, MSPH, FACP, will give a keynote titled “COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities” on Tuesday, April, 20 2021 during the Diversity Summit at 4 p.m. The talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session. See more information here

We checked in with Dr. Rios in advance of her keynote to learn what has motivated her in a career devoted to advancing the health of the Latinx community and increasing the number of Latinx physicians in the United States.  

Q: What has motivated your career track?

Rios: My parents and family supported me to reach for my dreams. I was also academically strong in math and science and was a scholarship winner in a math contest to a Catholic girls’ high school.

My mother worked in a hospital while studying to become a nurse and brought me on board for a job in my senior year of high school. Through this I became familiar with hospital care.

I earned a full scholarship to Stanford University. I performed work-study for some of it, developing a recruitment-to-college project for local Black/Latino high school students. At Stanford I explored my interests in health care delivery and public health. Through the Stanford in Government program I went to Washington, D.C. for a summer internship, where I enjoyed learning about policy and advocacy.

This experience led me to the UCLA School of Public Health, then its medical school, an internal medicine residency, and fellowship in health policy. I next jumped to state government and the White House, and then to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be inside the policy-making arena, which was my goal in college.

Q: What has guided and inspired you in your plethora of incredible leadership roles?

Rios: I’ve had many role models and mentors. I’ve been very inspired by health care policy and using health care reform to increase access to care, prevention, and health equity for Latinos and other vulnerable communities. While in school and in my residency, I was able to network and meet many leaders.

Throughout my academic journey, I have organized the Chicano/Latino Medical Student Association of California in 1983 and the National Network of Latin American Medical Students in 1987. During my fellowship – on health policy for primary care physicians – I studied the use of clinics as teaching sites for medical students.

I was then appointed coordinator for the White House Health Care Reform Task Force Outreach Groups and built a national network of Hispanic health professionals to provide input to the White House. I was also appointed to the HHS Office on Women’s Health, which opened the door to the national health care policy leaders whom I have continued to work with throughout my career.

I also founded the National Hispanic Medical Association in 1993 at the White House, incorporated with consultants, board, advisors in 1994, and received funding from HHS in 1995 for five regional meetings with Hispanic medical societies and providers. In 1999, I received $1 million to expand the organization’s programming. In October of 1998, I left the HHS Office on Women’s Health to staff the NHMA.

Q: What is your philosophy as a leader fighting for the health of minority communities?

Rios: I believe we should all have a right to healthcare that is accessible, affordable, and is culturally competent. Quality care can lead to health equity for our most vulnerable communities.

I believe that minority physicians should be supported to develop mentoring skills and be role models for the next generation, to complement what medical schools do to recruit and prepare students from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine. We need to work together to increase our numbers from the 5% or so of Hispanic and Black medical students/physicians we have had since the 1970s.

Q: Why are you excited to come speak on this topic at SMPH?

Rios: I am excited to speak about the opportunities for leadership development for physicians, especially medical students and residents who are engaged in the profession at the beginning of their career. They can help shape health care delivery in academic, hospital, medical practice settings.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

Rios: Health is so important to the most vulnerable populations, especially the poor, Hispanic, Black, and Native Americans. They need more physicians who care about making change in the system.