Q&A: Making sure Hispanic and women physicians are represented

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

For so many years when filling out forms that asked about race or ethnicity, AMA member Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD always checked the “other” box because she never wanted to make it seem as though one side of her heritage was more important than the other. Her father is German American and her mother is Mexican American. It took her several more years to understand what those boxes really meant.

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Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD
Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber, an internist who teaches future physicians and cares for adults and adolescents in Athens, Georgia, as a professor of medicine at the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership, a four-year medical school campus of the Medical College of Georgia.

She is also president of the American Medical Women’s Association and brings other identities to her role as a physician. She is a Hispanic woman, was born and raised in California (“there’s not many of us,” she noted), and a first-generation college and medical student.  

All of that has spurred her, in her work as a physician mentor, “to make more of an effort of reaching out,” said Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber, also member at-large of the AMA Minority Affairs Section and former vice chair of the AMA Women Physicians Section.

In an interview with the AMA, Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber discussed diversity in medicine and how representation for Hispanic and women physicians matters.

AMA: Your last name isn't commonly associated with Hispanic ethnicity, so do you ever find yourself in conversations with people who don't realize that and have revealed prejudiced views?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: It’s interesting, because even growing up we spent most of our time with my mother’s Mexican American family. Every few years or so we traveled back to Ohio to see my father’s family and I recognized when we went back there that we were different. It wasn’t until later, as I talked to my cousins, that they just thought we were so exotic because we were coming from Los Angeles, and we were all dark-haired.

I noticed a difference, but as a child, didn’t really pay that much attention to it. I remember bringing friends over to my house and the other kids said, “That’s your dad?” With his blonde hair and blue eyes, he didn’t fit in. But along the way I’ve been willing to explain my background and encourage discussion.

Everyone’s background is unique in some way, and we look for ways to connect. For students looking for mentors, it can be challenging as a faculty member’s cultural and ethnic backgrounds are not always easily known. As in other cultures and ethnicities, skin color, language and accents can all vary though there is a connection that is a constant even as we come to a community from many directions.

Before I got married, my name was Theresa Maria Louise Beltran Rohr. When adding the Kirchgraber upon marriage, I realized you can’t have a name that's longer than you are tall! When one is of mixed ethnicity, you feel like you’ve got one foot in each different side of your family. It can be an advantage as you can have a personal understanding of different cultures.

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AMA: Did that life experience shape the way you approach being a Hispanic physician?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: One of the reasons I discuss my background is to make a connection with others. Whether it is by food, language or upbringing, sharing my experiences helps me relate a little bit. Perhaps it brings forth a way to understand each other and explains why I am invested in them. Whether it is a student, mentee, staff or patient, there may be a distance between us. Once we learn that we share some common experiences, it is easier to develop a meaningful relationship.   

Representation is incredibly important. We need it to imagine our future selves and imagine what we can be.

I realized how far we have come when recently, I was reading a children’s book from the ’50s. It was about different professions and was notable for having no diverse representation. All the characters were white and all those in leadership were men. As I read the book to my granddaughter, I had to add in a few details, like “anyone can be the doctor, even your Nanny [me] is a doctor!”

We need diverse representation in all professions and at all levels. No matter who is reading a children’s book, they need to see themselves reflected in the pages. I need to be a part of that solution and it’s one of the reasons why I was very adamant about staying in academic medicine and becoming a full professor.

When asked, “Why do you want to do that? It is a long hard path,” I answer: Part of my responsibility is to be there and be part of the representation. I owe it to those who did not have the opportunity and to those who have paved the way for me, and others like me.

When I became a full professor of medicine, out of the more than 35,000 faculty members at medical schools across the country, there were only 20 women who were full professors of Mexican American heritage. I needed to make it 21. Once it’s 21, then pretty soon it’s going to be 22, 23 and 200. Representation matters.

AMA: What kind of impact do you think it makes for Hispanic medical students when they encounter faculty such as yourself at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG)?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: Recently we presented a poster about the lack of mentorship. The total Hispanic and Latino population in Georgia is about 18%, whereas the national percentage of Hispanic medical students is about 6%. And then if you look at the number in faculty, it's even less than that.

Though there is a fabulous student-affairs office and strong support from MCG, some medical students were feeling a little isolated. It was not always easy to know who the Hispanic physicians are and how to reach them. For the faculty, when you are one of very few, there is a large need, and it can be difficult to be there for all.

That’s why we put together a statewide virtual meeting. We just started reaching out to as many people as we could to create a network. Utilizing the established Latino Medical Student Association at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta, we then created a branch at the Athens campus as well. The virtual meetings include physicians and future physicians from all over Georgia.

We have a planned dinner at my home for the Hispanic medical students and physicians. When you all get together you share stories, you talk, and it helps you to understand that there are others with similar experiences. Even if the other person’s background isn’t exactly like yours, you learn, you connect and it  makes a difference.

AMA: Given the Supreme Court case on affirmative action, what preparations are you making to adjust if there's an adverse ruling to the status quo in using race and ethnicity in admissions?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: That’s going to be difficult in so many ways. Medical schools want a diverse class that represents the communities we serve. State medical schools, like MCG, want our students to stay and practice in Georgia and we have already been evaluating every application in a holistic way.

We review every single application. We read everything and we always have—it's not a quota. For example, if an applicant is from an underserved county of Georgia, we are going to review that application very carefully. We know that a medical student from a physician shortage area will be more likely to return to practice where they came from, where their family is. Recruiting a physician to an area of need when they have never lived there is a much harder process.

So, we already are looking at each application with a holistic eye and trying to get a better understanding of who the applicant is and what unique characteristics they would add to the class.   

I'm incredibly grateful for affirmative action. I'm sure that's partly how I got in. When I look at applicants now, they're all intelligent, incredible people with varied backgrounds and different opportunities.  

I see myself in some of them. Those who worked to put themselves through college and recognize the challenges they had to even be able to apply for medical school. I am grateful that the reviewers of my application understood the resiliency that had developed from the challenges faced. I try to bring that perspective when I review applications.

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AMA: What was it like to become the first Hispanic president of AMWA?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: The American Medical Women's Association has been a very proactive group since the very beginning. Luckily, there have been several other people of color who have been president who created a path. As the number of Hispanic women has increased, it was inevitable to have a Hispanic president. I'm looking forward to the day when you don’t have to say “first.” You just are one of the many. Representation is key and I am sure there will be many more to come.

AMA: What do you see as your major accomplishments in that role?

Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber: There are so many different things AMWA is always working on and one of the major things is to make sure that women physicians love what they're doing and are successful. AMWA supports medical students and pre-med students so that they see medicine as an achievable, viable career.

AMWA recently instituted three leadership programs. “Elevate” is for practicing women physicians who need some additional leadership skills. It's a year-long certificate program. “Ignite” is for medical students, and “Evolve” for residents. AMWA has developed these leadership programs for women who want to learn skills and be empowered when they go on further into their medical career.

Being involved with medical organizations like the AMA, AMWA or the National Hispanic Medical Association is so important. Having a supportive network is one of the keys to success and having a network is extremely helpful.  

One’s needs and goals will change and knowing that there are so many who want to be supportive, who want to help give you a leg up. We look for that network and support and learn how to avoid those who may not have your best interest in mind.