Maribel Ortiz sees the shocking inequalities of health care every day. Her hectic schedule involves working in two health practices in Lawrence and in her own practice in Haverhill. On typical day, she sees up to 24 patients. 

As a mental health nurse practitioner, she hears sad stories of poverty, substance abuse, depression and crime – all elements that effect overall health and well being.

"What I see is devastating," said Ortiz. "Poverty is rampant, people have lost their homes and many don't have jobs."

People are waiting three months to see a primary care physician according to Ortiz. Frustration is growing and many people end up in the emergency room. But access is just one of many problems. Language and culture differences have proven to be huge barriers to patients receiving quality care.

It was about two years ago when Ortiz said that 'a light bulb went off.' She asked herself 'what am I giving back?' Her answer was 'nurses need to create change.' It was then that she decided to pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree from UMass Lowell. She wants to teach at the university level where she can help fight stereotypes of different cultures.

"My goal is to teach clinicians about being more culturally aware of what patients of different backgrounds may be thinking about a certain treatment or diagnosis," said Ortiz, a native of Puerto Rico. "For example, patients might feel stigmatized about taking pills or speaking about depression or other mental health issues which can often lead to the wrong diagnosis. I also want to educate patients on how the healthcare system works and how much it costs."

Ortiz is learning leadership skills in the DNP program that are helping her evaluate the quality of treatments, analyze processes and find ways to provide equal care for all populations.

With more understanding of the finance side of health care, Ortiz says this new panoramic view of healthcare will help her find solutions.

"In the Merrimack Valley, my dream is for patients to have culturally competent appointments," she said. "It could be something as simple as knowing the way patients seek care and what their belief system is. You can get to this by simply asking the right questions, taking an interest and listening."