Gutierrez sees path for more Latino leaders in the health care ministry

February 15, 2015


During nearly four decades in health care, Albert Gutierrez has advanced through the leadership ranks at multiple health care facilities and now is president and chief executive of the multihospital Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center of Mishawaka, Ind., part of Trinity Health of Livonia, Mich.

Albert Gutierrez
He is the recipient of Trinity's Father Basile Antoine Moreau CEO Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award for his commitment to diversity in the workplace. Modern Healthcare named him one of its "Top 25 Minority Executives" in 2012.

Gutierrez believes that many forces are aligning that eventually will enable Latinos to increase their representation in the top leadership ranks in health care. He spoke to Catholic Health World about how and why the ministry should foster this.

Why are there so few Latinos in health care leadership?

Even though we in the U.S. group Latinos under one name, the migrant flow has come from a variety of Latin American countries, and some are still fairly young immigrants, in terms of how long they have been present in the U.S. Typically it takes new immigrants to the U.S. a generation to assimilate and gain influence, so that to make it to the C-Suite in numbers is still a little bit away, not long away, but a little bit away.

I was part of a wave in the 1950s that came from Puerto Rico. And in the 1960s soon after the issues with Fidel Castro in Cuba, the Cubans came. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the number of migrants coming from Mexico and most recently South America. For those that came in the 50s and 60s, for Puerto Ricans and for Cubans and others in their second generation in this country, there is a natural surge happening — large numbers are achieving success in education and careers.

What can be done to increase Latino representation in health care leadership?

The first thing is to treat the diversity conversation and the health care disparity conversation as the same conversation. I think that for a long time we spent a few decades worried about diversity while the disparity in the health care status of Latinos, as compared with other populations, was getting worse. So I think the new conversation is we're talking about disparities and diversity at the same time, in the same conversation.

There has been this assumption that representation drives policy, but we can no longer wait for higher numbers of minorities in the C-Suite to drive policy related to eliminating health care disparities. We're clearly starting to see policy formation to deal with disparities, and this is even more true in Catholic health care. We have been really known to have gone into those tougher neighborhoods — those tougher areas where the numbers of low-income Latino patients and other minorities have been higher — so our policy connections have always been there. But now it is time to use our influence to confront more aggressively some of these disparity issues.

What are some of the challenges of addressing diversity and disparity issues?

There continues to be a significant amount of tension in communities across the U.S. associated with the negative labels placed on the undocumented. They still experience a certain amount of bias from individuals who frame them as being inappropriately in this land. And their experiences with this bias and their undocumented status may make them reticent to seek a college education or health care services for fear of being caught by immigration authorities.

How does U.S. immigration policy impact health care disparity and leadership diversity?

The tactics for assimilating and advancing Latinos are changing — you are starting to see more and more states that are allowing the "Dreamers" (young, undocumented immigrants) to participate in higher-level education without having to prove status of citizenship. This is going to start changing the pool of those qualified for advancement to middle and higher positions in health care and other companies.

I am on the advisory board for the Institute for Latino Studies for the University of Notre Dame. I'll be meeting at least three Dreamers, who early in their academic careers as a freshman at Notre Dame said, "I want to be a doctor. What classes do I need to take to do that?" So that's what we're beginning to see, mainstream acceptance in some quarters and a route to career advancement where barriers may have been there in the past. A large number of Latinos are Catholic. For those interested in health care, their spirituality and religion should make Catholic health care an attractive career path.

It is also significant that late last year, President Obama advised immigration officials to "deport felons not families." This will keep families together. A successful family really drives the success of an education of an individual.

In the U.S., Latinos are not well represented in the ranks of physicians. Why is that and how might that limit Latinos' clout in health care?

I think that there's a difference between numbers and voices, and so this is really about identifying those Latinos that have been academically successful and hiring them in organizations whose agendas are focused on the disparities issues, so they move even faster in their ability to garner attention for the communities that they came from. So I don't think it's going to take a large number to swing things. When the educated Latinos and those that have gone through med school arrive on the scene they immediately garner quite a following in the Latino population.

How does Catholic teaching connect with the issue of Latino representation in ministry leadership?

In Catholic teaching one of the themes of subsidiarity requires that decision making and leadership be brought closer to the point of care where the people are. So therefore the leadership, given that Catholic teaching, should reflect the people that you are looking to serve. And the more that those leaders can be drawn from those communities, the better.

The second element of Catholic social teaching on the preferential option for the poor commits us to those communities for the long term that are in greatest need of our services. And drawing people out of poverty and making them part of the infrastructure that helped save them are some of the strategies that Catholic health care does so well.

And the third piece is acting in communion with the church, making sure that Latinos in particular see the very close alignment between the comfort that they have received spiritually from the Catholic Church and the comfort that can be awarded to them by the Catholic health ministry as an employer and the health care that we as Catholic organizations provide for our community. So it is an extension of a very natural series of relationships.

Is the popularity of the first Latin American pope working to lower barriers to Latino leadership in the U.S?

I think his leadership is inspiring people to become bolder, in many ways — being bolder academically, being bolder in going for that leadership position, being bolder about making a choice to advance your career in a faith-based organization.


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.