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Drew University is reaching out to Latinos

Times Staff Writer

Under pressure to bolster an institution that has trained thousands of minority doctors over 34 years, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science has begun seeking greater support from Latino community leaders.

The effort to recast the struggling medical school as a “multicultural institution” is a recognition of the need to expand beyond the school’s African American roots to tap into the growing political clout held by Latinos, now the majority in South Los Angeles, where the school is located. Drew University President Susan Kelly says the school needs to “reinvent itself” to find ways to better serve the healthcare needs of the poor in areas that have undergone a dramatic demographic shift.

“We know that Latinos are in need of accessible healthcare, and you cannot provide care without doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, and frankly that is why we are here,” she said.

The independent university and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center across the street were created after the Watts riots in an attempt to remedy a lack of accessible medical care for residents of South L.A., then predominantly African American. Both are held dear by many longtime residents.

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Drew has consisted of a residency program, a medical school that offers basic medical degrees in partnership with UCLA and a college of science and health to train medical technicians. During the last two decades, the university has had several credentialing crises within various residency programs; three of those programs were shut down. And the university was dealt a severe blow last month when it was forced to suspend its residency education program for all 251 resident physicians at King/Drew hospital. The university pulled the program after the county Board of Supervisors dramatically downsized the hospital, which is slated to lose federal Medicare funding after recently failing a last-ditch quality inspection.

In terms of its students, the medical school has already achieved many of its multicultural goals. Nearly one-third of the doctors who graduate each year are Latino, another third African American. Under the new push, the school is seeking to expand Latino influence in decision-making at the school -- on the board of trustees and on the faculty.

Encouraged to build a new “culture of accountability,” Drew University revamped its board of trustees and earlier this year hired Kelly, a native of Australia who is the first woman and the first white to head the school. She recalls telling the board during her interview that they needed to hire someone who had a stake in neither the black nor the Latino camp.

“It’s a good time to be neither,” she said. “Had the board chosen an African American, the Latinos would have said, ‘You’re not listening.’ And had they chosen a Latino, the African Americans would have said, ‘You sold us out, our dream is gone.’ ”

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Within weeks of getting the job, Kelly was invited to meet with Latino community leaders, and she enlisted their help in starting to reshape the school.

“People were asking, ‘When are they are going to open up and let us be part of the dialogue?’ ” recalled Jose Gonzalez, a former Drew trustee and medical management consultant who organized the early gathering with Kelly. “The school is a very important asset in the community, and we want to help fix it.”

Last month, a third Latino was added to the school’s 11-member board of trustees and an advisory committee of 30 prominent Latino civic and business leaders -- the Latino Leadership Roundtable -- was launched to help chart the future of the university in Willowbrook, south of Watts.

Meanwhile, the school has vowed to nurse its residency program back to health by 2008 by establishing partnerships with other hospitals. It also expects to expand its separate partnership with UCLA.

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As it broadens its mandate, Kelly said, the university needs to mirror the community without sacrificing the achievements of the African Americans who built the school.

“I made a promise that I would never advance Latinos at the price of African Americans,” she said. “We would just grow, we have to grow.”

Longtime Drew supporter Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) said the changed direction at the school -- a smaller board of trustees, the outreach to Latinos and the hiring of a white Australian president -- was “a bit of an eye-opener.” At first he didn’t agree with the changes, but then he considered the need for broader support to secure state funding and changed his mind, he said.

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“I recognize the changing demographics,” Dymally said, pointing out that the new Legislature has nine blacks and 27 Latinos. “The neighborhood has changed, the power base has changed, but the social mission has always been serving the underserved.”

With Dymally’s help, Kelly has met with political leaders at home and in Sacramento, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.

Meanwhile, the Latino Leadership Roundtable has produced an ambitious agenda: raising money for scholarships for Latinos, sponsoring cancer research and establishing a Spanish language and cultural center on campus. The group discussed the potential for collaborations with the National Autonomous University of Mexico and debated the plight of foreign-trained healthcare workers who lack the credentials to practice in the United States.

“There are thousands of trained doctors, dentists and other health professionals who are not licensed to practice here and end up driving taxis,” said Armando Vazquez-Ramos, lecturer and coordinator of a California Mexico cultural exchange program at Cal State Long Beach. “We have to find a way to tap into that human resource.”

Drew’s new board member is no stranger to the university. Martha Valverde, owner of MediFam, a 4,500-member organization that provides access to healthcare for low-income families and individuals in Los Angeles, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but grew up in South Los Angeles. And her first real job was as a clerk-typist at Drew.

Confirmed to the board in October, she expects to start helping the university develop new revenue sources after her first board meeting this month. She would like to see the university provide services that take advantage of state and federal funds available for providing healthcare to poor families that don’t qualify for insurance.

“There is no reason why we can’t get Drew to qualify to receive some of these funds,” she said. “And we need to develop a fee structure that will be well received in the community.”

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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