This Afro-Latina Doctor Is Creating Healthcare Access For BIPOC Communities


Analiz Rodriguez, MD, PhD, can't remember a time when she didn't want to be a doctor. Her mother always worked in healthcare and raised her to believe she could do anything. Starting at a young age, she was encouraged to pursue her dream. Dr. Rodriguez's mother didn't have a lot of resources but always prioritized education. In fourth grade, her mother managed to enroll her into a science camp for middle schoolers — even after the administrators told her she couldn't due to her daughter's young age — and it turned out to be one of Dr. Rodriguez's most pivotal life experiences.

"I am thankful to my mother, who raised me . . . she instilled in me a love for learning, which has been fundamental to my success," Dr. Rodriguez tells POPSUGAR in a recent interview. Born to Puerto Rican and Dominican parents, Dr. Rodriguez is an accomplished neurosurgeon and research scientist. She graduated both from high school and college in three years. At 19, she started medical school and completed the MD/PhD combined program in six years — receiving her PhD at 23 and her MD at 25. "I am extremely goal oriented . . . I always enjoyed school and have a very good work ethic," Rodriguez says. She doesn't turn down opportunities or take anything in life for granted. She recognizes that part of that belief comes from being first-generation and the understanding that her family came to the US so she could have a better life.

As a child, she saw a program about a little girl who had epilepsy. The episode showed the girl's journey and how eventually she ended up requiring massive brain surgery to stop her seizures. They shared the recovery and improvements she made after the surgery, too. A young-eyed Dr. Rodriguez asked, "What type of doctor did that?," and when her mother answered, "A neurosurgeon," there was a spark. Amazed to this day, Dr. Rodriguez says, "Neurosurgery just has those incredible moments that feel like miracles."

"Healthcare reform will not happen overnight, and it can feel overwhelming."

Understanding how hard it is to thrive in systems that were not built for us, it's her passion to provide medical transparency to BIPOC that drives her. She used to think the access-to-healthcare problem had to do with socioeconomic status, but as she learns more about the history of the US healthcare system and how it was built, she questions this oversimplified paradigm. "Healthcare reform will not happen overnight, and it can feel overwhelming," Dr. Rodriguez says, pointing out that it takes decades to reverse the structural injustices embedded in these systems. "However, I feel an obligation to try — especially as a woman of color," she adds.

When it comes to the reasons BIPOC patients often have less access to quality healthcare, Dr. Rodriguez says it's complicated and multifactorial. In her opinion, the US is segregated, which means logistically, patients have difficulty accessing a certain type of care in their area. She says being medically underinsured or uninsured is another factor but at the same time shares the surprising results from recent studies that looked into BIPOC who are not disadvantaged. The most common example used to exemplify these findings is in regard to Black infant mortality. "Infants of college-educated African American women are three times more likely to die in comparison to infants of white women with a high-school degree or less," Dr. Rodriguez shares.

The COVID pandemic exacerbated the disparities in care, even for BIPOC who were fully insured. Recent research found significant delays in cancer screenings and disruptions in routine diabetes, pediatric, and mental healthcare. The Latinx community, in particular, was disproportionately impacted due to higher rates of preexisting and underlying health conditions. The data from the pandemic is still developing, but Dr. Rodriguez believes there is a lot to be learned about why and how BIPOC populations were decimated.

"The US medical system is far from perfect. It's expensive and does not serve everyone equally . . . it also has unparalleled technology and state-of-the-art medical research . . . ultimately, the healthcare community must improve the medical system and build a bridge between social equity and advanced technology," Dr. Rodriguez says. As a brain-tumor neurosurgeon, she practices in a rural state because she believes that a zip code should not dictate the ability to get adequate care. Dr. Rodriguez serves as an associate professor of neurosurgery in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she sits on different committees and addresses the needs of rural patients. In 2020, she was selected to be in the first group of doctors to be part of the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program, a five-year initiative launched to increase diversity in clinical trials established by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation.

"My patients have told me that they trust me because I am Black or that they feel more comfortable talking to me in Spanish. I don't take that for granted."

Dr. Rodriguez's accomplishments are beyond impressive, and the truth is that she's positively impacting BIPOC by simply practicing. "My patients have told me that they trust me because I am Black or that they feel more comfortable talking to me in Spanish. I don't take that for granted. It is an honor to have people believe you will do the best thing for them," she says. Her personal experience as an Afro-Latina born and raised in the US has truly helped her understand a broad dynamic of what it means to be "other" in this country.

"The biggest influence I had to become a doctor is my mother," she proudly proclaims. She recently found this picture of herself receiving a doctor playset for Christmas. Dr. Rodriguez says it reminds her of how long she had dreamed of being a neurosurgeon. As a Black woman and a Latina with a Spanish last name, she has achieved the impossible and hopes to inspire others to reach their dreams and fulfill their personal destinies. The legacy Dr. Rodriguez is creating is one that is systematically improving access to healthcare for BIPOC, a true ode to her mother's unwavering love and support.