Every four years on the first Tuesday of November, America speaks. In the weeks leading up to the election, pollsters work tirelessly to gauge the ebb and flow of undecided voters. Voter turnouts of Hispanics, women, young adults, African-Americans and Asian-Americans surprised the “experts” this year. America’s new voice has been heard.
The U.S. evolving social and political landscape will affect health care for us all. Health care professional students should consider how to help America solve health care issues and the impacts these changes will have on their future careers.
Enormous challenges face our generation. The Census data cite by the 2020s whites over the age of 65 will exceed 20 percent of the population, substantially adding to health care costs paid for by working adults. Around the same time, minorities who are children under the age of 18 will outnumber non-Hispanic, white children. The added burden to our health care system, which already comprised 17.9 percent of our GDP and is expected to rise to 25 percent in 2025, will require significant changes in reimbursement, entitlement programs and third-party payers. The Affordable Care Act was an important first step in removing barriers to insurance coverage, but questions on how to reduce the unsustainable economic burden of our health care system remain unanswered. Insurance companies already have a stronghold in Washington, so medical and dental students need to learn and master health care policy. Knowledge drives effective advocacy. We cannot influence the discussion if we are not even at the table.
Unforgettable glimpses into the daily struggles of underserved patients from across the country have shown me disparities in health care firsthand, from patients at a safety-net hospital in Dallas to patients from rural Kentucky with no access to care. The challenges are immense, but the recent election has shown the power of democracy, giving a voice to the many forgotten for whom this country was founded.
The University of Minnesota is already on the right track. Dental students spend eight to 10 weeks in rural and public clinics around the state during their fourth year. The medical school leads the nation in training rural medicine doctors. The Rural Physician Associate Program prepares third- and fourth-year medical students for treating patients in underserved rural communities. According to the University website, since its inception in 1971, 60 percent of RPAP graduates practice in rural areas, and 80 percent choose careers in primary care.
Addressing shortages in rural communities is important, but patient populations in metropolitan centers are changing, too. The Twin Cities Hmong population reached 64,000 in 2010, larger than any other metro area in the country. The Census calculated that by 2042, minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Patients of tomorrow will be more diverse in culture, language, socioeconomic status and health literacy than ever before. Outreach experiences help students gain perspectives on the unique health care needs of underserved populations. Dental students volunteer at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul every Tuesday and Wednesday night to provide care for those who have nowhere else to go. It is our responsibility as students to seek out these opportunities and learn from those with different backgrounds.
The School of Dentistry launched Building Bridges in 2010 to mentor and encourage middle school, high school and college students from under-represented minorities to pursue health care professions. The program also helps students get into dentistry by offering admission if they fulfill coursework and academic requirements. Medical and dental students need to engage their communities. Middle school and elementary school outreach programs are great ways to not only inform children about their health but also inspire future doctors and dentists.
We are blessed to share this country, so let’s take care of one another. To do so, change must come from a fundamental shift in our nation’s values and principles, more than just demographics. May we listen to America’s new voice and work together to solve the disparities and economic challenges facing our health care system now and in the decades to come.