One Psychologist’s Efforts to Reduce Health Disparities

Sep. 24, 2020

Hispanic Heritage Month is Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. 

We sat down with Maria Espinola, PsyD, UC Health psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, to discuss why acknowledging and celebrating different backgrounds is so important, the strides that UC and UC Health are making to embrace diversity and inclusion, and much more.

Since coming to Cincinnati four years ago, Dr. Espinola has focused much of her work on reducing health disparities and promoting equity. She helped establish and is a faculty advisor for the UC Student-Run Free Clinic, serving uninsured people, especially the Latino community, in Springdale, Ohio. She co-founded the Latino Faculty Association at UC to promote the recruitment, retention and professional development of Latino faculty. She also helped develop the African-American Youth Wellness Fund to promote the economic empowerment and overall well-being of underserved African-American youth from low-income families. In addition, she has served as a medical expert panel member for the Ohio Commission on Minority Health and is a current member of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio Board of Directors.

Why did you decide to pursue your career path and focus on supporting marginalized communities?

Dr. Espinola: I was born in Argentina during a military dictatorship and became a human rights advocate as a child. My human rights work was initially focused on educating the public. I began writing for a newspaper at age 10 and had a radio show at 12. I was going to pursue journalism as a career, but later opted for psychology because I wanted to be able to provide interventions that could directly help survivors of violence heal from their trauma.

I came to the U.S. at 20 years old. I only had $500 and couldn’t speak English. I had to teach myself English and worked a lot before I was able to attend college. My experiences as an immigrant-led me to gain a better understanding of how people who belong to minority groups and other vulnerable populations are treated. The hope that one day I would be able to promote meaningful changes was what allowed me to keep pursuing my goals despite the challenges I had to face. Over the years, I shaped my career path until I was able to use psychology to educate the public, provide direct care to patients and advocate for institutional and public policy changes that promote equity and justice.

Dr. Espinola obtained her doctorate in psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She then completed her pre-doctoral fellowship in multicultural psychology at Boston University School of Medicine and her postdoctoral fellowship on women’s issues and trauma psychology at Harvard Medical School.

How have you brought that to life since coming to Cincinnati?

Dr. Espinola: When I first came to Cincinnati, I focused on learning about Cincinnati’s history and identifying the social determinants of health that impact people locally. I then began developing collaborative partnerships at the local and state level and implementing community-based programs focused on improving access to healthcare among underserved populations, including Latinos, African Americans and women with histories of homelessness, trauma and opioid addiction.

How has UC Health supported your work?

Dr. Espinola: UC Health has supported me in different ways. UC Health leaders have listened to my ideas, recognized the importance of promoting health equity and have given me the opportunity to directly address health disparities in marginalized communities. UC Health has also given me multiple platforms to educate providers, students and the public.

Why is it so important to acknowledge and celebrate different backgrounds?

Dr. Espinola: Acknowledging and celebrating people from different backgrounds, particularly from marginalized backgrounds, serves several purposes. It can help the public develop counterstereotypes or positive images about diverse groups, which could then lead to a reduction in negative biases. On the other hand, it allows people from diverse groups to feel more welcome and to increase their sense of pride and belonging. It is also particularly important for students and early career professionals to see positive role models and people who look like them leading successful careers. That could lead them to feel inspired and encouraged to pursue similar career paths. Recognizing different heritages and spotlighting diverse leaders can really change the way everyone thinks about an institution.   

Do you see yourself as a role model?

Dr. Espinola: I 100% feel a responsibility to be a role model for the Latino generation coming after me.

When I entered college, I met a woman who had a similar background and had made outstanding contributions to the field. I remember thinking that the fact that she existed was sufficient. Just seeing someone like me who could do it, who could accomplish these great things, led me to believe that I could do it, too. So I tell other Latino leaders, professors and doctors – sometimes the fact that you exist can be enough. In the mind of someone like you, who is struggling and doesn’t know whether they belong or if they are going to make it, knowing one person like them who did it can be enough.

I do a lot more than existing though! I dedicate a lot of my time to mentoring students. I am also very happy to be a faculty adviser for two student organizations, the UC Student-Run Free Clinic and UC Biz Mentors. Seeing their commitment toward creating a more just and equitable society is incredibly inspiring.

On Friday, Sept. 25, Dr. Espinola and the UC Latino Faculty Association are hosting a virtual Conference on Health Disparities featuring keynote speaker Margarita Alegria, PhD, chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

This free event is open to everyone. Find out more, including how to join, at the bottom of this page.

Also scheduled to speak are Caroline Hensley, MD, a family medicine resident physician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and co-founder of the UC Student Run Free Clinic and Jenny Zhen-Duan, PhD, who received her doctorate in clinical health psychology from UC and is now a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Both are students Dr. Espinola has mentored throughout their careers.

What is the one thing you want the community to know to help support equity and address the health disparities?

Dr. Espinola: I think everybody would benefit from learning about the disparities that exist and how to address them. One way to do that is by taking the time to identify what our biases may be, then make a conscious effort to change your behavior. Stop, reflect and ask yourself if you are diminishing someone’s message or accomplishments because of the way they look or sound like. If you are having the urge to treat someone differently because of the group or race they belong to.

It has been encouraging to see lately that people are paying a lot more attention to social injustice. Companies are being more open and vocal, people are more aware, which is great. However, we need to help support each other and help make systemic changes that are concrete and long-lasting.