Why Many Latinos Dread Going to the Doctor

How cultural barriers can be more important than income
A patient care coordinator doing community outreach on Obamacare. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Recent studies have found that Latinos are the racial and ethnic group least likely to visit the doctor. More than one-fourth of Latino adults in the United States lack a usual healthcare provider and almost half of Latinos never visit a medical professional during the course of the year. Other reports show that Latinos are more likely than members of other groups to delay healthcare for an illness or drop out of treatment when symptoms disappear.

Meanwhile, Latinos in some states were reluctant to sign up for the Obamacare exchanges. With Latinos accounting for one-third of the uninsured in the country, healthcare advocates have puzzled over why Latinos seem hesitant to seek healthcare.

There are the obvious obstacles: Around one quarter of Latino adults in the U.S. are undocumented, making them unable to qualify for Medicaid or other government benefits. Even with President Obama emphasizing that information provided when applying for Obamacare would not be transferred to immigration services, the 5.5 million American-born children of undocumented parents may find their families avoiding Obamacare sign-ups out of fear of exposing their status.

A language barrier also discourages some Latinos from asking for help, or from understanding the healthcare information available. And for the many Latinos working low-wage jobs or who are self-employed, employment status disqualifies them from public health programs while still not providing enough income for them to afford quality care.

These significant barriers partially explain Latino healthcare disparities, but they don’t tell the complete story. As a Latina growing up in a middle-class immigrant Mexican and Ecuadorian family, I saw Latinos who had the privilege of steady income, education, and familiarity with the English language still feel hesitant about receiving healthcare. My brother, who works at a company that doesn’t provide him with health insurance, has gone seven years without seeing a doctor. One friend’s mother, who holds a Ph.D. and has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, still needed her daughter’s urging to visit a doctor and discuss her lengthy battle with depression. Even I have hesitated to apply for health insurance during my time working as a freelance writer. I have spent the past 15 months without it.

A Pew Hispanic Center study found that half of the Latinos who did not seek medical care had a high-school education, a third were American-born, and 45 percent had health insurance. This suggests that the Latino apprehension about healthcare goes deeper than issues of access. It also partially derives from a long history of preferring non-Western medicine, a cultural uneasiness with the American style of healthcare, and a tradition of privacy and individual pride that makes many Latinos believe we have no need to ask for help.

A 2013 Colorado survey found that 45 percent of Latinos rely on home remedies to avoid medical costs. A 2012 Census Bureau report also found that 72 percent of Hispanics never use prescription drugs. Latinos—particularly those from indigenous backgrounds—have an established history of using natural medicine. When I recently visited the town of Rio Blanco, Ecuador, in the Amazonas region of the country, our local guide showed us plants his community used for every health issue imaginable: stomachaches, headaches, muscle pain, anxiety—even birth control and abortion. 

While visiting Peru, I observed how locals treated common ailments like altitude sickness with a tea made of coca leaves, in place of Western medications like Diamox. And in Ecuador, I observed my aunt’s housekeeper using oregano tea to help with menstrual cramps. These traditions still hold strong in many parts of Latin America today, providing many Latinos with a family custom of treating yourself without a professional doctor’s help.

My Mexican grandmother owned a natural health store for years, and she’d make her own medicine from herbal ingredients that we’d use whenever we got sick. We also used other natural methods, like curing colds with orange juice and Echinacea pills and digestive issues with papaya. To this day, I have never used Nyquil, Pepto-Bismol, Aleve, or many other popular American products. Even as an adult, I still hesitate to take any American medication without first asking my family for traditional alternatives.

These natural medicines can be risky and ineffective, but regardless, Latinos often feel more comfortable using them. As a result, many Latinos have created a network of alternative health practitioners that we often trust more than Western doctors.

 “There’s greater trust for what has worked for your family or what you’ve heard has worked for others in your community. So then, when Latinos have a health concern, many may think ‘Oh well, my Tia told me about this tea you can drink … ’ and that replaces Western medical advice,” says Marisa Salcines, the co-founder of Healthyhispanicliving.com, a website that aims to develop culturally relevant health content for the Latino community.

Latinos’ trust in Western healthcare diminishes even more when doctors don’t approach Latino patients in the way they expect. For many Latinos, a doctor-patient relationship needs to feel personal, welcoming, and concerned for the individual as a whole. This makes the American healthcare setting, in which doctors often rush visits and lack time to establish relationships with patients, seem untrustworthy.

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Amanda Machado is a writer based in San Francisco.

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