An Interview with Pilar Ortega, MD'06

Pilar Ortega, MD’06 is an emergency medicine physician and was recently recognized as one of Crain’s Chicago Business “40 under 40” for her work with the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement (MOLA). Dr. Ortega was born in Spain and grew up in Miami, and is an advocate not only for Latino health, but for aspiring Latino physicians. Adrian Camarena, MS1 and co-president of the Pritzker chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ortega and ask her a few questions about her work.

Adrian: Hi Dr. Ortega. First, I’d like to congratulate you on your recognition in Crain’s! It is a remarkable achievement. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?

Dr. Ortega: My work is divided in various pieces. I’m an emergency physician: my training was in emergency medicine at the University of Chicago and I work as an emergency physician at Illinois Masonic. I also teach medical Spanish at UIC. Those are the two pieces of my work life. A lot of the other things I do involve community work and organization work. This is where we get to MOLA, the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement. This takes up a lot of my time but it’s all volunteer work for myself and many others.

Adrian: You were recently recognized as one of Crain’s Chicago Business 2017 “40 under 40.” Can you talk about your work that earned you this recognition?

Dr. Ortega: It was all about MOLA. MOLA is an organization meant to represent Latino physicians and Latino students interested in medicine. The idea of MOLA is to be a highly connected body in Chicago that can represent Latinos in healthcare, and by extension support the health of the entire Latino community. There was no such organization like that in Chicago. While there are pieces of this puzzle that exist in LMSA or NHMA [National Hispanic Medical Association], there was really nothing that people felt tied to in Chicago. We decided to fill that void with MOLA. It grew really fast and we were able to accomplish a lot of things and it hasn’t even turned one yet. We were all super excited to be recognized by something as visible as Crain’s.

Adrian: Latinos are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, yet Latino representation in medicine is extremely low. What are some of the challenges to increasing Latino representation in medicine?

Dr. Ortega: First I think we need to analyze the reasons why that representation is so low, then ask what we can do about it. I think part of the problem is that young kids have big dreams about pursuing careers in medicine, and somebody along the way crushes that dream with so called “reality.” I think one of the huge things we can do is get to communities early enough so young kids can see that within their communities there are doctors like them who speak Spanish and are interested in them and their growth. That is one of the big things that MOLA tries to do, and one of the reasons that this organization has the potential to be so powerful over a long period of time.

Adrian: How have your background and experiences motivated you to take on these issues?

Dr. Ortega: It has been shown that the people who serve the underserved are the people who feel connected to them in some way. For me that is absolutely true. I grew up speaking only Spanish. That connection to the community which was primarily Latina is something that I’ll always cherish. When a patient sees a doctor who can speak the same language as them and understands them culturally, it has a profound effect on their treatment. In medicine there is a lot of talk about burnout. For me, pursuing this passion protects me from burnout. I still have my career in clinical medicine, I still have my educational role, but I also know that I’m doing something that is making a profound impact in the Latino community.

Adrian: If you could offer advice to Latino students aspiring to be physicians, what would that advice be?

Dr. Ortega: I would say to follow your passion. It keeps you sane and happy. If you can integrate your passions into your work then you should do it. A lot of times students are told to focus on their studies, and that is absolutely true. However, I think that somehow you need to find a way to integrate the things that you’re really passionate about. Without that I think you’re more likely to burnout. Whatever your passion may be, whether it’s work in the community, research, or mentorship, surely there is something that MOLA can help with. We are an infant organization but we need the passion from the younger people, like medical students. Bringing that passion is the key.