Michael Rodriguez, M.D.
When Michael Rodriguez replied to an ad for undergraduate research subjects, he had no idea it would be the beginning of his career as a medical researcher and physician. His intent had been to be a guinea pig, but Sharon Fleming, professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology, suggested he come aboard as a researcher instead. Rodriguez agreed to the higher-paying gig and went to work studying the effects of fiber on the digestive system. He ended up as a co-author on the resulting research paper. "I probably wouldn't be here without her," Rodriguez says.
"Here" is the UCLA Medical School's Department of Family Medicine, where Rodriguez now serves as professor and vice chair of research. After finishing his undergraduate work in nutrition in 1984, Rodriguez went on to medical school at UCLA and then to Johns Hopkins for his Masters in Public Health. He returned to California for a fellowship at Stanford, where he made his first foray into community health issues for minority populations.
The son of immigrants from Latin America, Rodriguez was born and raised in San Francisco's Mission district. Some of his family were actively involved in groups like United Farm Workers; that context, he says, "gave me a sense of consciousness that it's important to work for things that affect the larger community." As a teen, Rodriguez would accompany his mother to her doctor appointments in order to translate. As Rodriguez points out, 70 percent of diagnoses are based on patient history; you can't get the history if you aren't speaking the same language.
"I always dreamed of going back to help the community I came from, but I had no idea I would end up in academic medicine," Rodriguez says. "I wanted to go to school and be a doctor in the community. But as I got my education, I started to turn on to the potential of not only helping individuals but also helping populations."
Experiencing first-hand some of the barriers faced by minority communities in accessing health care services, Rodriguez gravitated toward this field. Much of his research has focused on quality of services to these communities; for instance, one study he's currently leading looks at the impact domestic violence has on pregnant Latinas. Another examines doctor and patient perspectives on the role of health care systems in addressing elder abuse and neglect in ethnically diverse populations.
This spring Rodriguez and a colleague launched UCLA's Network for Multicultural Research on Health and Healthcare (NMRHH). The network provides a new framework for addressing inequalities in health care service to minority populations. Numerous organizations and agencies have conducted studies on this issue, but the data isn't really being utilized, Rodriguez says. By culling data from these various sources, NMRHH aims to create a comprehensive picture of health care disparities and then to devise ways to overcome these deeply seated problems.
Rodriguez points out that despite increased attention to the issue of health care disparities, the problem is persistent. "Most of this research is conducted in universities, not at the places where care is actually being provided," he says. "In the work that I do, I try to see how members of these underserved communities define these problems and what solutions they see. Because real solutions are going to be the ones that resonate in the clinics and the communities, that are economically sustainable as well as culturally appropriate."