By Corinna Wu
Elmer Huerta's call-in show and clinic help Latinos tune in to cancer prevention
By Corinna Wu
It’s 12:59 p.m., and physician Elmer Huerta has a couple of things on his mind: the patient he’s consulting with in his office at the Washington Hospital Center’s Washington Cancer Institute and his radio show that’s scheduled to begin in exactly one minute. He starts broadcasting the show’s theme music and lets it play as he finishes up with his patient. After a few minutes, the appointment is over and he closes the door. He quickly sits down at the broadcasting equipment next to his desk, puts on a pair of headphones, and turns down the music. Consultorio Comunitario is on the air.
Every weekday, Huerta hosts the one-hour, call-in program (known as Community Clinic of the Air) on Radio America, WACA AM 1540, a Spanish-language news and talk station that’s transmitted to the greater Washington, D.C., area. He answers a wide range of health and medical questions, on topics as diverse as acid reflux, Lyme disease and stem cell research. In addition to Consultorio Comunitario, Huerta writes and produces a one-minute radio segment, Cuidando Su Salud (Taking Care of Your Health), syndicated to 120 stations in the U.S. and Latin America. He also co-hosts a weekly TV show on the Washington-area station MHz (WNVC) and serves as a medical commentator for CNN en Español.
Huerta, 54, has made it his mission to use the mass media as a tool for healing. Two decades ago, as a young medical oncologist in Peru, he noticed that many of the patients sent to him for chemotherapy had late-stage cancer. He remembers talking to one woman with cervical cancer, asking her if she knew what a Pap smear was. She didn’t. But she knew the entire plot of a popular telenovela, or soap opera, that had aired the night before. Similarly, a man with colorectal cancer knew all of the soccer scores but nothing about screening.
“Why do they know so much about entertainment and sports and so little about health?” Huerta wondered. “Would it be possible to sell health to the public using the media, the same way we sell soap, alcohol, tobacco and furniture? Will people buy the concept of preventive health?”
Huerta became determined to answer those questions. He came to the U.S. in 1987 for a one-year fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore and then returned briefly to Peru. In 1989, he immigrated to the U.S. “I quit medical oncology,” he says. “My focus was to pursue a career in cancer prevention and control.” In 1992, he earned a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins, and in 1994, he completed a cancer prevention fellowship at the National Cancer Institute.
Shortly after he immigrated, Huerta approached Alejandro Carrasco, the general manager of a Spanish-language radio station in Maryland. “He wanted to educate the Hispanic community through the airwaves,” says Carrasco, who gave Huerta a daily five-minute show. “It sounded like something we needed.”
Soon, they lengthened the show to one hour, and when Carrasco became the owner of Radio America, Huerta took his program to Carrasco’s new station.
“This is the health show,” Carrasco says. “It’s an institution. Even doctors listen to him to hear how he explains concepts in simple ways. He’s a doctor and a teacher.”
Consultorio Comunitario has an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 listeners, according to Carrasco, and Huerta’s other programs reach many more. A recent study found that 70 percent of Latinos in the Washington, D.C., area have heard of him.
“The Latino community in the United States is very diverse,” Huerta says. “They come from 21 different countries. So how is it that I can reach out to them and put them on the same page?” Music is one way; he plays songs off of his own iPod during the breaks. And rewarding callers with silly sound effects is another. Good questions merit a chest-thumping Tarzan-like call; the not-so-good ones get a comical scream of frustration.
The hardest questions he gets deal with rare diseases, but most of the time, he dispenses common-sense advice. “People don’t need details, just basic concepts,” he says. “See a doctor. Have a doctor. Get health insurance.”