Hispanic Health Leadership Award for Dr. Irene Blanco

The National Hispanic Health Foundation (NHHF) recently recognized Dr. Irene Blanco, associate dean for diversity enhancement at Einstein and a rheumatologist at Montefiore, with its Hispanic Health Leadership Award. The NHHF is the philanthropic arm of the National Hispanic Medical Association, a nonprofit organization that represents 50,000 licensed Hispanic physicians in the United States and acts as a partner organization of the National Institutes of Health.

“Our board selects leaders like Dr. Blanco based on their vision and leadership in improving healthcare in their organization,” said Briah Stokes, communications and membership specialist at the NHHF. “It’s noteworthy that Einstein has a great focus in the Bronx community, and Dr. Blanco has led the support of marginalized groups’ entrance into the medical field to address the needs of the community’s most vulnerable patients.”   

Dr. Blanco has a longstanding interest in righting social wrongs that deprive Latinos of care. “My parents were Latin American transplants to New Jersey, and they faced so much discrimination and racism,” she recalled.

After graduating from Einstein in 2004, Dr. Blanco completed an internal medicine residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She then returned to Einstein for a rheumatology fellowship, adding an M.S. degree in 2010 from Einstein’s Clinical Research Training Program. By the time she became assistant professor of medicine at Einstein (she’s now associate professor)  and director of the Lupus Clinic at Montefiore, she was committed to working with underserved minority populations in the Bronx.

Taking It to the Hispanic Community

“Hispanic patients tend to do worse than other groups when they have rheumatic diseases—not only lupus but rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and more,” she said. Yet a Bronx borough poll found that only 10 percent of Bronx providers speak Spanish; that’s not enough to serve a community where 60 percent of patients are Spanish-speaking.

Irene Blanco M.D.

Irene Blanco, M.D.

“There’s not a lot of content in Spanish available, and existing content is either poorly written or at a higher grade level than many people comprehend,” she added. “There’s a special problem within rheumatology: Our diseases are complicated, our treatment regimens are complicated, and a lot of our medications act on the immune system, which is a black box in general.”

Dr. Blanco has sought to remedy the communication issue. She works closely with a core board of the American College of Rheumatology’s Lupus Initiative that creates or edits fact sheets and other materials that are published through the ACR. She distributes them to Hispanic patients at the Lupus Clinic, with whom she also can speak in their own language.

Dr. Blanco is also dedicated to making sure Hispanics are included in clinical trials that are critical to identifying the next generation of treatments. In 2018, she received a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health to develop a program with the American College of Rheumatology that uses community health workers to recruit minority lupus patients for clinical trials. 

More Hispanic Health Professionals

Through her leadership role in diversity enhancement, Dr. Blanco also has a platform for cultivating Latino physicians and researchers. “We host the Einstein Enrichment Program, a pipeline for students from seventh grade through college. The goal is to have them apply to Einstein or consider STEM and healthcare careers.”

At Einstein, students find ample support as well. As a member of the planning committee for Einstein’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan for Excellence, Dr. Blanco helped create an oversight council and set goals. “We’re talking about equity in the courses and clerkships. We’re seeking better inclusion. And we’re listening more to student voices,” she said. Any student who wants to be one of those voices will always find Dr. Blanco’s door open.