PROVIDENCE — During Hispanic Heritage Month, many organizations “virtue signal” by, for example, displaying cultural exhibits or having a “taco day” in the cafeteria, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez said.
But, he said, “Taco Tuesday is not progress. It is appeasement.”
To truly address Latino communities, including their health and welfare, organizations must instead focus on the “percentage of the budgets dedicated to marketing, outreach, diverse workforce, community education,” he said.
Rodriguez, a long-time public health advocate and Latino radio host, was a keynote speaker during “The 2023 Rhode Island College LatinX Summit: Reconnect, Discover, Build: What’s Your Story?” over the weekend.
During the event, he told the audience that Hispanic Heritage Month is always “a bittersweet celebration” for him because while it highlights how Latinos contribute to society, he said it also gives organizations that are not properly serving the Hispanic community a chance to virtue signal.
Rodriguez noted that in March he launched Rhode Island’s first Spanish-language health website, nuestrasalud.com (“Our health”). But he said he has received no support for the initiative from the state’s two largest hospital groups — Lifespan and Care New England.
In launching the website, Rodriguez said he’d spent a lot of time fighting misinformation during the pandemic, noting that COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the state’s Latino community.
“Health literacy is one of the greatest tragedies in our community,” he said during Saturday’s summit. “The COVID pandemic killed many in our community out of ignorance, not out of lack of access.”
He noted that Hispanic adults have the lowest average health literacy scores of all racial/ethnic groups, with 41 percent considered at “below basic” health literacy levels, according to an assessment by the National Center for Education Statistics.
And he noted that one study found 74 percent of Spanish-speaking patients have less-than-adequate health literacy, compared to 7 percent of patients whose first language is English.
To address these problems, Rodriguez said he built a Spanish-language website that includes a directory of Spanish-speaking providers, a medical encyclopedia, a directory of clinical research, plus videos and podcasts on a variety of health topics.
Nuestra Salud is a social venture company, which has sponsors, and 50 percent of the profits will be donated to Clínica Esperanza, which provides linguistically appropriate medical care to uninsured adults in Rhode Island. Since 2010, the clinic has served more than 30,000 patients, 80 percent of whom are Spanish-speaking, and Rodriguez is a board member.
But, Rodriguez said, he has received no support for that effort from Lifespan or Care New England. He argued that such a website should have been built by those two large organizations rather than by “a retired gynecologist” such as himself, and he said those entities might have been compelled to compete to support the website.
“But it is the absolute opposite,” Rodriguez said. “The marketing department at Lifespan does not even reply to my multiple emails asking for support but do respond when I want to highlight one of their physicians or programs. CNE responded after multiple requests only to say that their small budget is already committed to ‘just the basics.’ "
If the concern is “just the basics,” he said that 30 percent of the babies born at Women & Infants Hospital (part of Care New England ) are Latino. “But increasing health literacy in the community is not part of the basics,” he said. “Marketing to the Latino community is not part of the basics.”
Rodriguez said the lack of support is “challenging” for him after a prominent 38-year career in Rhode Island.
He noted, for example, that he has been associate chief of OB/GYN at Women & Infants Hospital and medical director for Community Affairs for Care New England. He has been chair of the Rhode Island Foundation and the Rhode Island Latino PAC, and he has been on the boards of Women & Infants Hospital, Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, Bank RI, Citizens Bank, Rhode Island Public Radio, and Rhode Island PBS.
“My point here is not to cry ‘woe is me’ because my validation comes from a different place,” Rodriguez said Saturday to an audience that included many college students. “My point is that you, as future professionals, need not believe that personal achievement alone will improve the health and welfare of our community. Anywhere you land, whether in charge or not, you must call out inequality, discrimination, but — most importantly — neglect.”
When asked for a response to Rodriguez, Lifespan spokeswoman Kathleen Hart said, “Lifespan actively partners with community organizations across the state to improve health equity and outcomes for all Rhode Islanders, and through our health institute we offer numerous free education and wellness programs — cancer screening, diabetes prevention classes, skin checks, mental health first aid, a new community connection show — many of which are offered in Spanish, and our community health workers outreach to underserved populations to help remove barriers to care.”
Care New England did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Dr. Beata F. Nelken, who runs Jenks Park Pediatrics in Central Falls, said, “(Rodriguez) has always been a champion of the community, a tremendous advocate who is aware of the gaps in communication. There is a need for improved sources of health information in Spanish.”