Dr. Charles Vega first walked into the UCI Family Health Center as a medical school graduate eager to make a difference in his first job as a physician.

Twelve years later, his impact is felt both within the community of hundreds of grateful patients and their families he sees each week and in the burgeoning field of Latino healthcare.

Vega directs the family medicine residency program and the acclaimed Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community (PRIME-LC), the first medical education program in the country designed to meet the needs of underserved Latinos. As such, he stands at the forefront of one of the most pressing issues in healthcare today.

The expanding U.S. Latino population creates a growing need for competent and culturally sensitive healthcare. According to studies, nearly 30 percent of Latino patients cited difficulty communicating with their physician as a concern.

Vega has helped UCI develop as a leader in addressing these issues nationally and locally.

“I want to make UCI a center of excellence for Latino healthcare with the best practices in the country,” Vega says. “When patients, researchers, and policymakers think about Latino health, I want them to think about UCI.”

The issue of Latino health is of particularly critical importance in Santa Ana, the home of the Family Health Center, where 69 percent of the patients are Latino. The great majority of these patients speak Spanish.

Along with his work with PRIME-LC, which is enrolling its fifth class this month, Vega has created HEAL-LC, a program in which freshly minted physicians will receive a strong foundation in the language, cultural customs and health beliefs of Latino patients. These physicians will continue to use these skills long after completing their training at UCI.

“While Latino health needs are increasingly being recognized, we need to have solutions and put what we learn into action,” Vega says. “That’s where PRIME and HEAL come in.”

In addition, Vega helped develop a medical-legal partnership with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. The MedLaw Project kicked off this spring, providing free legal aid services that would otherwise be inaccessible to low-income Family Health Center patients and their families.

This partnership is important, Vega says, because issues best addressed through the legal system – such as housing and employment problems – often can impact family health.

Vega points to a recent MedLaw success as an example. Members of a Santa Ana family who shared a small apartment repeatedly were being treated for a skin disorder called dermatitis, which is caused by insect bites.

Family Health Center doctors and staff found that the landlord was lax about controlling the insect infestation in the building, so they referred the family to the Legal Aid Society, who with a partnering law firm sent the landlord a letter demanding that the issue be addressed.

The landlord immediately hired a professional exterminator to clear the apartment building, and Vega reports that the family’s dermatitis problems went away.

This type of involvement, Vega adds, makes the Family Health Center more than a medical clinic. He and fellow UCI staffers have built it into a trusted community resource.

“Our mission is to be part of the community, a strong center that the people of Santa Ana trust and can turn to,” Vega says. “When I decided to go into medicine, it was clear to me that this job is about service, about being the patient’s advocate. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

“What we in medicine can learn from Latinos is the concept ofcariño. We need to bond with our patients and let them voice their concerns. Building that skill with our medical students is important.”