Crain's Health Pulse: New York program to encourage medical diversity helps doctors like Jaime Nieto

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New York program to encourage medical diversity helps doctors like Jaime Nieto

Dr. Jaime Nieto’s childhood idol wasn’t a sports star or a superhero. As a small boy growing up in the Andean town of Chiquinquirá, Colombia, the person he most wanted to emulate was the local doctor, the only one for 40,000 people.

“He was the guy who would take out your teeth or your appendix, treat your blood pressure and deliver your kids. He was an icon, he was respected in a way that no one else was,” recalled Nieto, now 49 years old and the chief of the section of neurologic surgery and spine surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Queens. “The only thing I ever remember saying was I want to be a doctor.”

But Nieto, the youngest of 10, had no clear path to achieve his “fantasy.” His own parents never went past grade school and his mother died when he was just 5 years old. Even after graduating with top exam grades in high school in Bogotá, he went to work in the emerald mines in Colombia for about a year and a half.

When he did finally make his way to the U.S. at age 19 on a student visa, he spoke little English and he had to drive trucks and do construction work to put himself through college. For a time, it didn’t seem like he’d ever get the support or the money to go to medical school, but he never stopped dreaming about it.

Nieto got his big break in 1991 from a state-funded, post-baccalaureate program run by the Associated Medical Schools of New York that prepares minorities to become doctors. The program helps get disadvantaged and underrepresented minority students ready for the rigors of medical school in a yearlong program that includes free tuition and a stipend. It also guarantees them admission to a participating medical school.

“If I didn’t have this opportunity, I probably wouldn’t be a doctor today, which means I would not have been able to touch 5,000 people’s lives,” he said.

In 2014, underrepresented minorities, including blacks, Hispanics and American Indians, made up just 9% of the state’s almost 73,000 doctors, although those groups comprised 35% of the population, according to the Center for Health Workforce Studies.

Nieto said he understands all too well the immigrant experience so many of his patients face every day.

“About 90% of my patients are Hispanic, and they speak less English than I do,” said Nieto, who became a U.S. citizen in 1995. “If you’re a foreigner, everything is uncomfortable. These people have to deal with what I used to deal with. For them to come and see me is a big relief.”

Nieto particularly likes the challenge, and the reward, of removing spinal tumors. For one recent patient, who had become almost entirely paralyzed while on a trip to China but insisted on having surgery back in New York, he removed her benign tumor with stunning success. “I got the tumor out and she came out walking fine,” he said. —R.S.