A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program
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College was the first time it occurred to me that I was not from the most advantaged background.”

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hector Rodriguez attended one of the nation’s largest and most diverse high schools. As he left this setting, which he recalls had “no majority population,” Hector began paying attention to how racial and ethnic minority groups experience the health care system. Eventually, this interest would shape his research to center on the organizational factors that affect disparities in health care delivery.

All in the Family

For Hector, working hard and being a good student was always understood to be part of his future. For years, he observed his father — an immigrant from Mexico, like Hector’s mother — study late every night after long days of work in a paper manufacturing plant. When his father earned his B.S. in Management Science and eventually, his Master of Public Administration, Hector knew that he would head in a similar direction.

Once he left the Bay Area as an undergrad at the University of California, San Diego, Hector embraced his identity. He became involved in Chicano political organizations and started to explore how he could use his education to contribute to the Latino community in terms of improving health care quality and access.

“I wanted to see the real impact of policy change and organizational change on vulnerable populations,” Hector explains.

He changed his major to urban studies and decided to go to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, where he found his passion for health care management.

From Health Care Management to Health Services and Policy Research

Through his networking with other Chicano Latino professionals, Hector became involved in the management of a Kaiser Permanente medical center as an administrative student intern.

He spent seven years with the medical group, and found the direct involvement in day-to-day medical care operations improvement to be energizing. Although Hector realized that his organization was ahead of the curve in terms of considering access to care, quality of care, and patient experience in an integrated, interdisciplinary way, he knew most health care organizations around the rest of the country were not.

“It motivated me to contribute to the field from a research and policy perspective,” Hector explains.

Specifically, he was interested in exploring how delivery of care might differ based on the cultural needs and preferences of patients. So he left medical operations and set out to generate evidence that would support changes in health care delivery systems for minority populations. His first stop was getting a Ph.D. in Health Policy/Medical Sociology from Harvard.

Serving Vulnerable Populations through Research

Soon after securing his Ph.D., Hector received a 2009 New Connections grant that allowed him to pursue the research niche he was passionate about. The grant, his first as a principal investigator, looked at the different reporting patterns of patients based on their cultural background.

“There are lots of challenges in measuring patients’ experiences of health care,” Hector explains. “Based on their ethnicity and cultural norms, patients may be more or less forgiving of a medical mistake, or more or less likely to give their physician a positive rating.”

Hector’s published findings demonstrated that evaluation instruments based on patients’ experiences, versus their rating of a physician, present a more accurate picture of patient satisfaction. The paper has been cited a good deal in terms of disparities and patient experience.

Hector attributes the New Connections grant with his subsequent research successes.

“You can author as many articles as you want, but until you get that first grant as principal investigator, funders feel less confident in your ability to execute research,” Hector explains. “Having the New Connections research grant and resulting publications signaled that I could execute and publish data analyses.”

Now an Associate Professor at his alma mater, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Hector’s current interests have shifted to looking at organizations that provide services more exclusively to socioeconomically vulnerable populations. Two of his latest federal projects as principal investigator include a 2015 – 2016 grant assessing patient engagement innovations and a five-year natural experiment analyzing the impact of a federal-state partnership to improve health care delivery and payment on the outcomes of patients with diabetes.