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Elena Rios, a Doctor with a Mission

By Karina Flores-Hurley.

Elena Rios was first introduced to the world of healthcare during high school. Old enough to earn some money, she started as a volunteer at the Beverly Hospital in Montebello, Ca. where her mother worked as a nurse. Once a week, she would deliver mail and flowers to the patients, which eventually led to her first paid job as a messenger.

That is how Rios started to understand the importance of effective communication between the ill and their caretakers; a lesson she has dedicated her career to as President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA). Since 1998, she has led the non-profit association that represents 50,000 licensed Hispanic physicians with the goal of improving the health of the Latino community in the United States.

But it wasn’t until her years at Stanford University as a biology and public administration student – and thanks to mentors she met along the way – that she discovered a passion for medicine.

At Stanford, she met Latinos from various ethnic backgrounds and different parts of the country. It was one of her roommates, Maria Echeveste, who would eventually get her a ticket to the White House to create a network of medical professionals serving the Latino community.

One of her early mentors was the university’s Vice President of Chicano Affairs, who eventually helped Rios get an internship in D.C. in 1996.

“You can’t be a professional without having support from those ahead of you who know how to use resources efficiently to be successful in any business or career. “You can’t just learn from books.”

Elena Rios

Elena Rios at the White House Event for President Obama’s
Climate Change Plan Announcement. August, 2015

Elena Rios at the Vice President’s House for Hispanic Heritage Meeting, October, 2010.

Rios soon understood that in order to drive real change, she needed to learn policy. In 1980, three years after graduating from Stanford, she obtained a MSPH degree from UCLA’s School of Public Health; before moving on to obtaining her MD at the School of Medicine in 1987, also at UCLA.

Rios earned a seat at the table during the Clinton administration as she had developed a network list of prominent Latinos in the health care industry that were brought in to be part of the health care meetings at the White House. In 2003, she was asked to coordinate Hispanic participation in the Health Care Reform meetings taking place; which led to her being asked to represent Hispanic physicians in press conferences towards the end of that same year. They named their group the National Hispanic Medical Association.

Later, she was asked to develop a national summit on Hispanic health during the Bush administration.

“We were able to show that we were working with both Democrats and Republicans,” Rios says. “They recognized the expertise we had on sharing the strategies on how to work with our doctors and patients.”

Once established in Washington, Rios also served as Advisor for Regional and Minority Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and in 1993 she was the National Health Care Reform Task Force Coordinator of Outreach Groups at the White House – which proved instrumental in the Clinton administration’s health care bill and the first-time inclusion of Latino affairs.

Dr. Ciro Sumaya, Administrator, Heath Resources and Services Administration, U.S. DHHS provides the first funds to establish NHMA in Geneva, Switzerland, 1993.

Ruth Kirschtein, MD, Director, NIH; Elena Rios, MD, NHMA; Jo Ivey Boufford, MD, Asst. Sec. of Health, John Eisenberg, Director, AHRQ, Medical Directors from CDC and SAMSHA – NHMA 2nd Annual Conference, 1998.

In addition to her role as CEO of the NHMA, Rios also serves as the organization’s National Hispanic Health Foundation affiliated with the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. The program directs educational and research activities.

Throughout the years, the NHMA has granted scholarships towards their leadership development and mentoring programs. The organization’s own scholarship program is exclusively dedicated to Hispanic students that are in the health profession and includes the dental, public health, pharmaceutical and medical industries.

“We have a mentoring program for the Scholars,” Rios shares. “They don’t only get the money but they also have to do mentoring to keep the scholarship.”

The mentoring for NHMA programs is supported by organizations such as the NIH. Over the years, the organization has relied on funds from donors and sponsors to fund their educational programs.

On the other hand, the organization runs several other programs from their recruitment fairs to guarantee cultural competency in the medical profession; to their Partnering and Communicating Together to Act against Aids (PACT) program, focused on HIV prevention in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Latino Commission on Aids and the New York Academy of Medicine.

Running a start-up was one of the biggest challenges for Rios in the early days of the NHMA. Finding partners and supporters who could help further their mission, including finding resources and staffing a reality, was no easy task.

NHMA was announced at the White House Health Care Reform Task Force Event in December 1993 – Rios here with former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, HHS Secretary Shalala and nine medical societies.

Rios was the only public U.S. Delegate to the World Health Assembly meeting on May 1993 in Geneva, Switzerland

“You have to have the vision and the leadership,” Rios shares. “You also have to have the funding.”

The organization’s partners include government agencies such as the HHS and the CDC; Foundations such as the WK Kellogg Foundation; and corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and United Health Care. NHMA also works with voluntary-based groups from the American Heart Association and with coalitions such as Health IT for Underserved and the Campaign to End Child Obesity.

For almost 20 years, Rios has been a strong, focused leader; driving the organization’s vision through innovation and new partnerships.

Rios’ efforts have resulted in important gains for the Hispanic community in the health arena. In 2000, it led to the creation of the cultural-competency standard, which entailed the addition of language services related to federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Along the same lines, clinical trials now also require the inclusion of minority patients and doctors.

Rios’ sisters: Elena, Rose, Jeanne and Cindy. Pico Rivera, CA, 1965.

Rios sisters with mom Martha Rios, Rose seated, Jeanne, Elena and Cindy, 2015

Elena with her dad Jesus M. Rios. Debutante Ball for Montebello, CA. Pico Rivera, CA,1972.

With an impressive career background behind her, Rios hopes to continue to further the mission of the NHMA and for future generations to continue to serve the needs of the Latino community.

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