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Ochoa’s Journey Through the Recruitment Pipeline

Eddie Ochoa, M.D.

Vivian Flowers, MPS

Director of Recruiment and Retention
Center for Diversity Affairs

His curriculum vitae is that of a who’s who in Arkansas’ health arena and community service. The long list of accomplishments and awards is more fitting of a physician, researcher, and Hispanic community advocate in his retirement years. But Eddie Ochoa, Jr., M.D. has miles to go on a journey that began in Texas through what is known as the “recruitment pipeline” in the world of health education. While Ochoa’s UAMS appointments include associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and assistant professor/assistant dean for minority affairs in the College of Public Health, his roles and commitments extend well beyond those titles, both on and off campus.

Consistently recognized as one of “The Best Doctors in America”  and one of “The Best Doctors in Arkansas,” since 2007, Ochoa treats about 2,100 children a year at Arkansas Children’s Hospital at its downtown and West Little Rock clinics, which cater to Spanish-speaking families. Becoming one of the best pediatricians in the nation and Arkansas did not happen overnight. It happened over decades, beginning with his exposure to a pediatrician in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Dr. Carlos Gutierrez was a physician for the football team at the high school for which Ochoa served as the team trainer.  
“Dr. Gutierrez was more than a mentor; he was a role model,” Ochoa recounted. “Interacting with him was like having a colleague, even though I was not on his level. The relationship was informal and comfortable; he just made me feel that way, even as a high school student.”

The informal role model exposure and close mentoring experience cultivated Ochoa’s desire to become a physician. By the time he arrived at Princeton for undergraduate studies, the decision was well rooted. Intent on immersing himself in “what was strong at Princeton” as well as something that really piqued his interest, Ochoa chose pre-med and religion as his major fields of study.  In addition to work study, he was a member of Princeton’s Chicano Caucus, was a football and Lacrosse student trainer, and a took a religion class with renowned philosopher and professor Cornel West, who was “all about challenging someone’s current notions of how the world is.”

Even amid a rich, active academic experience at Princeton, Ochoa’s career choice was challenged. “Here I was at a big East Coast school. The science courses were pretty rigorous. When I went in to talk to a pre-medical adviser, I got the ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ talk, which is a pretty standard experience for people without the family tradition in medicine.”

While most medical students do not have the benefit of a family legacy in the field, 52% of the fathers and 35% of the mothers of all medical students nationally in 2008 held graduate and professional degrees. Of that cohort, 37% of fathers and 26% of the mothers of Hispanic medical students that year held graduate and professional degrees, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Ochoa’s parents were college educated, but they were not physicians or credentialed with graduate degrees. They ran the family printing business that his grandfather had established in El Paso after immigrating to the United States from Mexico.

The challenges Ochoa faced at Princeton strengthened his determination to be admitted to medical school and return to his home state. Upon graduation from Princeton, Ochoa went home and spent the summer engaged in self-study to prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

“I just thank the good Lord I only had to take that thing once,” he recalled. “I had things going on at home after I graduated college. I took the MCAT that summer. I thought I would just gather as much as I could on my own and review things that it made sense to review.”

Ochoa applied to seven medical schools in Texas. After interviewing and receiving a mixed bag of decisions, he learned of the AIMS (Advantage in Medical School) program at Texas Tech, a pre-matriculation program that allowed students to begin medical studies before officially enrolling.

“We took embryology and preventive medicine in the spring, gross anatomy all summer and by the time fall came, we were in with our class and took everything they took except gross, which we had just finished,” Ochoa explained. “The undoing of [AIMS] was low retention of each year’s cohort. In successive years, there were more students who didn’t graduate on time. As for me, I didn’t have any problem in medical school. As a matter of fact the MCAT was probably harder than any test I took in medical school. I tell a lot of students that medical school was not hard, it was just the volume of information that you had to synthesize that made it challenging.”

The fact that Ochoa finished in the top third of his medical school class drives home the value of pre-matriculation and other programs that target under-represented minority (URM) students.  In return for the opportunities he has been given, Ochoa pays forward in a host of ways – advocating for URM recruitment at UAMS, providing shadowing experiences for pre-med students, lecturing on minority health and health equity issues, serving as a faculty interviewer of medical school applicants, and most recently, accepting an appointment to the College of Medicine’s Admission Committee.

In addition, the trajectory from Texas Tech medical graduate to distinguished physician and public health leader has been bridged by an impressive body of training and service experiences, which include an American Medical Student Association preceptorship, a pediatric residency at UAMS, and a Soros Foundation fellowship.

The constant thread woven throughout Ochoa’s academic, training, professional and leadership is what also ties him to Arkansas – an authentic commitment to serve and advocate for people. He recalled his impression of the faculty and staff during his residency interview at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, “I could tell how genuinely concerned people were and how well connected the people were.”

Since becoming faculty himself, Ochoa’s concern for his fellow Arkansans has netted exceptional outcomes for UAMS and the state. He was a co-principal investigator of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission’s groundbreaking health disparities study, founded the local La Casa Health Network, helped establish a public health research exchange between UAMS and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica, and is the outgoing president of the board of directors for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Yet, Ochoa’s greatest impact is likely in the exam room, where he serves as a healer and a role model for countless youth and families, as well as at home with his own daughters.

As a successful product of mentorship and URM-targeted programs, Ochoa emerged from the academic pipeline poised to become a titan for health equity. He now stands as a strong advocate for a critical mass of URM students in the health professions.

“That will require penetration down to the community level of parents who send their children to school,” Ochoa believes. “The population level is where this work needs to be done. It’s really convincing parents that elementary, secondary and college education is important.”