04/22/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

America needs Latino healthcare providers

Coral Gables Senior High School-product Rayden Llano's travels as a college student have taken him much farther than the usual spring-break blowout at the beach with his buddies.

Since Rayden graduated in the top two percent of his class at Stanford as biology major last year he has studied the healthcare systems of France, Spain and Japan as a Luce Scholar. Recently, he was in Rwanda with the Clinton Global Initiative. This past month, Rayden was awarded the prestigious Marshall Scholarship and will be studying healthcare policy at the London School of Economics.

America needs people like Rayden. As an accomplished Latino interested in a healthcare career, it is critical that young people like him make an impact in our country. And we need build a path for other accomplished Latinos to follow in the healthcare space. There is no more potentially fecund or needy segment of the population.

Here's why: Although Latinos represent nearly 17 percent of the overall population, the Census Bureau reports Hispanics are glaringly underrepresented in healthcare fields making up only two percent of nurses, just over three percent of pharmacists, and under four percent of physicians. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), there are over 3,000 Latino patients to each Latino physician. In comparison, the ratio for non-Latinos is about 335 patients for each doctor. And with the current healthcare workforce in 37 to 50 age range, the need to invest in students like Rayden is critical, not just for Latinos, but for America.

The Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF) and CVS Caremark are working together to identify, inspire, prepare and position other young Latinos to follow in Rayden's footsteps into the healthcare field through the Healthcare category as part of the long-standing Youth Awards program, which featured Rayden five years ago.

This year, another talented group of high school seniors focused on healthcare were brought into the fold in 10 regions across the country, including Miami. The new class will be exposed to college-age and young professionals like Rayden, who has taken a leadership role by sharing his experiences and vision through HHF's continuum called Latinos On Fast Track (LOFT). And the destination of the fast track in this case is the healthcare field.

The key to keeping America healthy in the future will be the development of a long-term plan for nonprofits like HHF, public and private partners like CVS Caremark, and established leaders like Miami's Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, Jr. to work together and stay connected with emerging healthcare professionals as they attend college and enter the workforce.

That is the cycle we have developed. "We need a systematic approach to closing the gap in healthcare disparities which taps all of our available resources including young Latinos," said Dr. Greer, who is assistant dean of academic affairs and chair of the Department of Humanities, Health and Society at Florida International University School of Medicine. "The future depends on such an approach."

America is in great need of Latino healthcare providers. Previous research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that Hispanics are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic blacks and three times as likely as whites to lack a regular health care provider. And the AAMC's "Diversity in Medical Education" report found that the presence of Latinos in the medical field has basically remained stagnant since the mid-80s.

Unfortunately, we are now in the second decade of the second millennium and Latinos are disproportionately at risk of illnesses such as diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, obesity and hypertension among others.

We need an American based farm-system which invests in top Latino students, like Rayden, who are part of the fastest-growing and youngest segment of the population. His generation and younger Latinos can play an essential role in addressing the healthcare issues of our day and the future.

At a time when we as Americans need to be more careful than ever with our investments, investing in youth and health is a winning proposition.