Thirteen-year-old Ricardo Correa sat in the pediatric endocrinologist’s office alongside his mother, listening with fascination and soaking up information like a sponge.
When the appointment ended, he returned to his home in Panama and spent the next few years learning more about his own health and taking every opportunity to help others who were sick or hurt.
By age 18, Ricardo knew he wanted to become a doctor who could stop the spread of infectious diseases and help prevent chronic diseases.
“When I was a kid, my mother always said that I could do two things in my life,” Ricardo Correa, MD, EdD, said. “One was being a singer and another being a doctor. Of course, the singer part never worked out – I was not privileged to have a voice. But the doctor part always was there.”
After graduating from medical school, Ricardo moved to the US for his post-graduate education and training. He began his career as an endocrinologist on the East Coast.
As he treated patients in the clinic, he championed infection control practices to keep himself, patients, and colleagues safe.
He also continued to expand his career interests into population health and health equity issues.
“I combined my expertise in endocrinology and population health to begin working on health equity issues, specifically high rates of diabetes and obesity in disadvantaged populations, such as the Latino community.”
A New Home: Arizona
Ricardo’s work eventually brought him to Arizona, where he now holds many titles:
- Program director of the endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism fellowship and director for diversity in graduate medical education at The University of Arizona College of Medicine
- Staff clinician and researcher at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans’ Administration Medical Center
- Faculty and director of the health equity fellowship at Creighton University School of Medicine
- Volunteer provider at two health clinics
Through all these roles, Ricardo is passionate about serving the Latino community, which makes up 42.6% of Arizona’s population.
Despite the state’s high Latino population, few physicians are Spanish-speaking Latinos.
“We need Latinos in the healthcare system,” Ricardo said. “Yes, many people can learn Spanish, but you never understand the culture if you are not from that community. Data shows that patient care improves when the diversity of physicians reflects the diversity of the patients.”
As the world shut down in response to COVID-19, Latinos nationwide were disproportionately affected by the devastating virus.
Luckily, infection control leaders such as Ricardo stepped up to help the Spanish-speaking Latino community navigate the pandemic.
Tackling COVID-19 Among Latinos
Throughout the pandemic, Ricardo provided infection control training to community health workers, who continue to play a vital role in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in both the clinical and community settings.
“Community health workers are vital in mitigating the spread of infection in the clinical setting by keeping communities healthier and reducing the number of infected patients admitted to the hospital,” Ricardo said.
Ricardo also reached the Latino community through culturally tailored approaches, including through Spanish TV channels, such as Telemundo and Univision.
“I never thought I would appear on TV,” Ricardo said. “But they needed a Spanish-speaking doctor that was a voice for the community. I appeared in the media a lot to talk about infection control. If I can be the voice that translates what is happening and tell Latinos in lay terms what it is that they need to know, I really want to do it.’”
Ricardo also got engaged locally and made sure to lead by example.
“If I told people to wear a mask, I wore a mask. When I got my vaccine, I got it in front of everybody,” Ricardo explained. He also went door to door to promote the COVID-19 vaccine in local Latino communities.
His infection control efforts proved fruitful, as COVID-19 rates dropped as more Latinos accepted the vaccine.
As more waves of COVID-19 affect the Latino community, Ricardo continues to emphasize the importance of education.
“Education is vital to prevent the spread of infections,” Ricardo said. “I continue to educate the Latino community at town hall and city council meetings on hand washing and basic infection control strategies they can do at home.”
Infection Control Challenges in the Latino Community
Ricardo has been able to accomplish a lot in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among Latinos. The health disparities present in the Latino community posed, and continue to pose, significant challenges.
For example, Latinos make up notable percentages of active, outdoor jobs, such as construction (27.3%) and agriculture (23.1%), according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These types of jobs may not have the option of teleworking and may not offer paid time off, making it difficult for Latinos to afford to stay home when sick. If patients absolutely had to work while sick, Ricardo urged them to double-mask and work with their supervisor to avoid the spread of disease.
Further, many Latinos live in multi-generational households in small quarters, which can make it almost impossible to quarantine effectively.
Another challenge was addressing cultural beliefs and COVID-19 myths.
“For some people in the Latino community, Grandma is the expert on every single disease,” Ricardo explained. “So again, that’s why education is so important in infection control, especially for Latinas because they are the primary caregivers in Latino families.”
Finally, the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and tests was difficult because some Latino patients were afraid to go to a hospital.
To help alleviate this issue, Ricardo worked to set up local vaccination health fairs outside churches and grocery stores.
The Need for More Latinos in Healthcare
COVID-19 reinforced the importance of infection control, such as how to properly use PPE and clean and disinfect surfaces and objects in the healthcare setting.
But the pandemic also shined a light on the need for more diversity in healthcare workers. The cultural challenges in infection control presented by the Latino community are a prime example of why diversity in medicine matters.
Ricardo suggests to any Latinos interested in pursuing medicine to give it a try.
“If you want to really change the healthcare system to be more friendly for underrepresented minorities, such as Latinos, we need more people like you to represent those populations,” he said.
As COVID-19 variants emerge and other infectious diseases affect Latinos, Ricardo plans to remain a leader in infection control.
What Can You Do to Promote Infection Control in Your Healthcare Setting?
Access more information about infection prevention and control in healthcare by visiting resources from CDC Project Firstline.
Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline infection control educational content to healthcare workers, so they are equipped with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (Latinos and all communities) from infectious disease threats in healthcare settings.
You can read these articles:
- What is Project Firstline?
- What is the Goal of Infection Prevention and Control in Healthcare Settings?
- What’s a Virus?
- What is Ventilation and Why Does It Matter?
- Contact Time: What is It and How Does it Impact Infection Control?
- The Surprising Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfection
- What’s a Respiratory Droplet and Why Does It Matter?
- We Need to Talk about Hand Hygiene Again
- Why are Gowns, Gloves, and Eye Protection Recommended for COVID-19?
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.
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