Among the many challenges facing the U.S. health sector today is the issue of racial and ethnic disparities in health care. A key factor affecting such disparities is the limited access to health professionals who speak the language and understand the culture of the patient population being served. As an example, California is an increasingly diverse state with ethnic and racial minorities making over 50% of the state’s population. However, this diversity is severely under represented in California’s healthcare workforce. For example, although Latinos make up 31% of California’s population, they represent only 4% of nurses and 4% of physicians throughout the state.

At the same time, the healthcare sector in the U.S. is faced with professional shortages in many essential areas; nurses, pharmacists, dental hygienists, respiratory therapists, medical laboratory technologists, psychologists, and social workers are very much in demand. Along with this shortage, a misdistribution of health professionals also exists. This is exemplified by the need for physicians and dentists in underserved urban areas and rural counties.

As a result, a major issue currently affecting the healthcare sector is the lack of culturally and linguistically diverse health professionals. This is especially true for the “safety net” – community-based clinics, public health clinics, and health service agencies that are often the sole providers of health services for immigrant communities. It is well known that important aspects of care, such as treatment adherence and patient satisfaction, improve significantly when the cultural and linguistic gap between health service providers and their patients is narrowed.

The Welcome Back Initiative began in California with the opening of the San Francisco Welcome Back Center in 2001, followed by other centers in Los Angeles and San Diego. Early on the initiative identified foreign-trained health professionals within immigrant communities, analyzed their needs, and developed a service model to assist them in contributing their skills, knowledge, and experience to the healthcare workforce in the U.S. Due to the needs of immigrant health professionals across the country, the Welcome Back Initiative has spread beyond California’s borders, with centers currently in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland , New York, Texas and Colorado.

The services offered by Welcome Back provide immigrant health professionals assistance in obtaining the necessary credentials and licenses to practice their profession in the U.S., marketing their skills appropriately and effectively, obtaining further education and experience to facilitate their finding of meaningful employment in the health sector, and if necessary, exploring alternative health-related careers.

On a broader level, the Welcome Back Initiative, by helping to integrate immigrant health professionals into the health sector in the U.S., has sought to increase cultural competency in health care, language access in health care service delivery, and the overall diversification of the healthcare workforce.