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Faculty Profile: Dr. Carmen Paniagua

By Nancy Dockter, MPH
Diversity Process Coordinator

Carmen Paniagua, EdD, RN, CPC, ACNP-BC

The wellspring for Dr. Carmen Paniagua’s work as a clinician, academician, and researcher comes down to one word: people. Her parents were the inspiration for her career in health care. Her two mentors and her son give her life continued meaning and direction. Her patients are an enduring source of fulfillment.

Whether on service at the UAMS Emergency Department or at the bi-monthly Charity Hispanic Clinic in Little Rock, where she has volunteered for seven years, she says: “I can be tired at the end of the day, and don’t feel like going to the clinic. But once I get there, all of that changes. For me, it has always been a heartfelt service, helping others who are vulnerable. That has brought me joy in my profession.”

Paniagua holds faculty positions in the College of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine and in the College of Health Related Professions, where she teaches and serves as an advisory board member for the Genetics Counseling Master’s Program. She is also a nationally certified procedural coder and a certified medical interpreter. She is former clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing.

In 2009, she established the first online clinical genetics course at UAMS for graduate students.

Recognition for her work includes several prestigious awards at the national and international levels. Among them are the Outstanding Nurse Practitioner Educator Award, the International Society of Nurse Geneticists Founders Award for Service Contributions to Genetics Nursing, as well as several leadership and community service awards.

The only Hispanic doctorally prepared nurse practitioner in the state, Dr. Paniagua, who is from Puerto Rico, was in 2010 the first Arkansan to be inducted into the prestigious Fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. She is also the only advance practice nurse in genetics certified in the state.

Dr. Paniagua earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Puerto Rico, then went on to earn a doctoral degree in education and a post-master’s degree in Adult Acute Care/Nurse Practitioner. She completed a National Institutes of Health post-doctoral fellowship in molecular genetics, sponsored by the National Institute of Nursing Research and Georgetown University. In addition, she completed a post-doctoral traineeship in pain management in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Paniagua learned by example from her father and mother, both academicians with practices in medicine and nursing, respectively. Together, they built a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and ran it free of charge.

As a young girl, she accompanied her father on hospital rounds and to medical journal club meetings, but only later did she fully appreciate his pioneering work. As the first endocrinologist in Puerto Rico, he established the first U.S.-approved residency in that field in Puerto Rico.

“As a clinical researcher, his main contribution was conducting trials for birth control pills that eventually got approval by the FDA – and ex-communication from the church,” Paniagua recalled.
In 1996, Dr. Paniagua and her son moved to Arkansas, where she taught for several years at the School of Nursing at Harding University. During that time, she earned a doctorate in education; Dr. Claudia Barone, CON faculty member and former Dean, served on her dissertation committee. That was the beginning of an enduring mentorship.

“She has mentored me through the 11 years I was faculty in the College of Nursing,” Dr. Paniagua said. “She has encouraged me to push myself to reach new professional goals and has always been patient, flexible, and a willing listener. She has supported me every step of the way.”

Dr. Paniagua’s other mentor, Robert Taylor, MD, PhD, dean emeritus of the Howard University College of Medicine, has been instrumental in her career development. Together, they have written several manuscripts and a book chapter on genetics.

“He has influenced my abilities, creativity, and initiative to pursue my career goals and passions as an underrepresented minority faculty,” Dr. Paniagua said. “I have been able to identify personal and professional skills which are pivotal to my academic advancement and provide opportunities for the development of them. In addition, he has helped me identify and develop strategies for coping with the challenges facing minority faculty and promote networking and research collaboration interdepartmentally and nationally.”

Dr. Paniagua herself is a mentor and advocate for Hispanic students considering a career in health care. She recruits at high schools statewide and served as committee member for the only Hispanic doctoral nursing student at UAMS.

“Mentoring and role modeling are two main factors that influence decision making,” notes Dr. Paniagua. “Diversity in the college classroom fosters intellectual development, reduces students’ level of racial prejudice, increases their tolerance towards racial and gender differences, and facilitates students’ explorations of diverse perspectives.”

Dr. Paniagua has some words of advice for professionals from underrepresented groups.

“Be aware of artificial barriers (such as jealousy or discrimination) that may be put in your way because of your ethnicity and/or gender; these barriers may emanate from individuals or institutions, large or small,” she said. “It is important to focus on your desired outcome and to develop the personal skill sets to overcome these barriers. Have a high level of resilience.”

As Arkansas’ population becomes increasingly diverse, having a qualified health care workforce that that is culturally competent will become more and more critical. That includes being able to truly understand and meet the unique needs of Hispanic/Latino patients.

“It is an extremely heterogeneous population, both among subpopulations and within them, and is dramatically increasing its presence in the United States as well as in Arkansas,” she says.

As a commissioner for the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, one of her concerns for Hispanics is that their sources of medical help and treatment options are often based upon a “cost-ordered decision making model,” meaning that in an effort to economize, these individuals may access the health care system as a last resort, with “crisis management” and reliance on home treatments and community healers being the primary strategies.

In order to most effectively provide care to this diverse and self-sufficient population, Dr. Paniagua advises, “Emphasis should be placed on culturally appropriate community health promotion programs.”

Dr. Paniagua emphasizes the need to overcome communication and cultural barriers if UAMS is to most effectively serve this population.

“Being the only state academic health center and not having press number 2-for Spanish is one more barrier for the Hispanics to access health care,” she observes. “Diversity in the health professions is paramount to the nation’s need to eliminate inequities in the quality and availability of health care for underserved populations. In order to be more effective in serving a diverse population, all healthcare providers need to be culturally competent and sensitive.”