Ask Our Expert: Elena Rios, M.D.

Dr. Elena Rios Headshot 2016

Health Power: What do you consider the three greatest health conditions of Hispanics in the U.S., and why?

Dr. Rios: The three health conditions I consider most important for Hispanics in the U.S. are: Diabetes, Obesity, and Hepatitis C, and here’s why:

Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes, which is the most common type of diabetes, is rampant in Hispanic communities and has very serious complications when it’s not kept under control, such as blindness and amputations. That’s why it’s so important that there be increased awareness among Hispanics about pre-diabetes as well as diabetes since when pre-diabetes is diagnosed and managed properly, diabetes can be prevented.

As you know, pre-diabetes occurs when a person’s blood sugar level is higher than normal, but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. However, he or she is at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems including heart disease, and stroke. Without lifestyle changes, like eating healthy and having enough regular exercise, many people with pre-diabetes have an increased risk of developing diabetes in 5 years.

Obesity: I mention obesity after diabetes because these two conditions are so closely related to each other. In fact, more than 8 out of every 10 adults who develop Type 2 diabetes are obese. Therefore, not becoming obese, or losing weight if you’re already obese might significantly decrease your risk of developing diabetes.

The two things that are most helpful for preventing and controlling overweight and obesity are: eating healthy and having enough regular physical activity. Eating healthy means eating 5 fruits and vegetables a day, and eating less fat, less foods with trans fats, less sugar and foods and drinks with high sugar content, and less “fast foods”.

It’s also important that special attention be given to avoiding childhood and teen obesity because children and teenagers who are obese are likely to become obese adults.

Hepatitis C: This condition, which is caused by the Hepatitis C virus, is especially harmful to Hispanics, or Latinos because its prevalence, or rate, is much higher among Hispanics than in the overall U.S. population, and the rate is increasing more rapidly in Hispanics. In addition, the mortality, or death rate, from hepatitis C is higher in Hispanics.

The increasing rate of Hepatitis c in Hispanics may be due to the fact that Hepatitis C can have no symptoms for years, which is why many people with this infection are less likely to be screened for it. In fact, that’s why this disease is often called All Hispanics need to know that Hepatitis C is preventable, and can be treated. Knowing ones Hepatitis C status is the first step to both connecting infected persons to treatment, and to preventing the disease from spreading.

It’s also important to know that Hepatitis C is the leading cause of chronic liver disease (cirrhosis), liver cancer, and the need for liver transplantation, and that it is most common among baby boomers, meaning people born between 1945 and 1965.

Because of the negative impact of these three conditions on the Hispanic community, the National Hispanic Medical Association is actively addressing all three.

Dr. Rios is also CEO, Hispanic-serving Health Professions Schools, Inc, which organization is committed to improving the health care of Hispanics. She also serves on the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; Board of the Partnership for Prevention; and as Co- Chair of the Hispanic Health Coalition.

Dr. Rios earned undergraduate degrees and an MS degree from Stanford University and UCLA School of Public Health, and her M.D. degree from UCLA School of Medicine. She then served an NIH fellowship focusing on access to care for minorities, and management skills among family practice physicians.

Elena V. Rios, M.D., M.S.P.H. Biography

Dr. Rios serves as President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, (NHMA), representing 50,000 Hispanic physicians in the United States. The mission of the organization is to improve the health of Hispanics. Dr. Rios also serves as President of NHMA’s National Hispanic Health Foundation affiliated with the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University, to direct educational and research activities.

Dr. Rios also serves on the Campaign Against Obesity, Care First Blue Cross Blue Shield, Nurse Family Partnership, Better Medicare Alliance and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda Boards of Directors, the Cancer Treatment Centers for America Hispanic Advisory Council, and the National Quality Forum’s National Priorities Partnerships Steering Committees. Dr. Rios has lectured and published articles and has received several leadership awards, including awards from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Congressional Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Caucuses, American Public Health Association Latino Caucus, Association of Hispanic Health Executives, Minority Health Month, Inc., Hispanic Magazine, Verizon’s First Pollin Community Service Award, and Amerigroup. Dr. Rios was appointed to the Minority Alumni Hall of Fame of Stanford University in October, 2006, as a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 2007, and on the Institute of Medicine Global Forum for Health Professions Education in 2014.

Prior to her current positions, Dr. Rios served as the Advisor for Regional and Minority Women’s Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health from November 1994 to October 1998. In 1998-2004, Dr. Rios served as Executive Director, Hispanic Serving Health Professions Schools. In 1993, Dr. Rios was appointed to the National Health Care Reform Task Force as Coordinator of Outreach Groups for the White House. From 1992-94, Dr. Rios worked for the State of California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development as a policy researcher.

Dr. Rios has also served as President, Chicano/Latino Medical Association of California, Founder of the National Network of Latin American Medical Students, as member of the California Department of Health Services Cultural Competency Task Force, the Stanford Alumni Association, Women’s Policy Inc., Commission to End Healthcare Disparities and Partnership for Prevention Boards of Directors, PacifiCare-UnitedHealthcare California Investment Committee and the AMA’s Minority Affairs Consortium Steering Committee.

Dr. Rios earned her BA in Human Biology/Public Administration at Stanford University in 1977, MSPH at the UCLA School of Public Health in 1980, MD at the UCLA School of Medicine in 1987, and completed her Internal Medicine residency at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose and the White Memorial Medical Center in East Los Angeles in 1990, and her NRSA Primary Care Research Fellowship at UCLA Division of General Internal Medicine in 1992.