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Lessons from abroad: Serving the Hispanic population

Dr. Susan Arnoult, MD
MedExpress

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MedExpress, a national leader in urgent care, is committed to delivering high-quality, convenient and affordable walk-in care. With nearly 250 centers in 19 states, MedExpress offers a wide range of urgent care, employer health, and basic wellness and prevention services.

With warm, welcoming centers and a full medical team, patients can receive walk-in treatment for everyday illness and injury, including more advanced offerings such as X-rays, IVs, labs, minor surgery, stitches, and treatment for broken bones, sprains and strains.

A trip abroad

Sometimes you learn lessons you hold closest to your heart when you’re far from home. Along with my teenage daughters, I took several mission trips to Guatemala to serve as a volunteer at the “Hope of Life” baby hospital. 

It was our work to give emergency nutrition to under-nourished children brought from the surrounding mountainous area. It came as a revelation that, despite the many differences between me and the women seeking help at the baby hospital, we had everything in common when it comes to what matters. 

These were mothers and families striving to provide the best care for their children. We all want the same thing: healthy, thriving kids. 

Providing education and getting to know families through interpreters, I wanted to be able to communicate directly, so I developed an interest in learning Spanish.

Learning challenges

As a physician and a citizen in an area of Pennsylvania with a large and growing Hispanic population, Spanish language skills enrich practice and help with community engagement.

Using my yearly continuing medical education (CME) budget, I enrolled in a two-week Spanish language immersion course in the Dominican Republic.

Arriving alone, I was picked up by a driver sent by the language school to bring me to my apartment.

It was nothing like I had imagined: the bars on the windows and doors, stifling heat and a padlock on the door that, although we shared no language to communicate, the driver made clear I was to keep locked always.

Unable to work the appliances but finding the fridge cold, I was suddenly aware that I did not have any food or water. I gathered the courage to leave the fortified apartment and venture out. 

A four-block walk brought me to a corner store. The vendor inside did not speak English. “Agua?” I ventured. He showed me to a cooler with water and soda. Without visible prices or a cash register, the man added my purchases and asked for an amount. 

Shaking my head and shrugging, he spoke again and louder. I had some cash left from the airport, and I held it out as he picked through to collect what I owed. “Gracias” I said as I hustled out the door and back to the refuge of the apartment. 

The next day, I was overwhelmingly grateful to be greeted by the English-speakers of the school.

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A new understanding

This was the definition of experiential learning. I was in a strange place, unable to speak the language, and desperate to take care of a physical need. 

It did not take much for me to translate these feelings of fear, distrust, and helplessness to the experiences of my many Spanish-only speaking, recent immigrant patients entering the health care system at a time of need. 

Since then, meeting the unique needs of the Hispanic population and particularly non-English speakers and new immigrants, has become a personal focus. At my MedExpress center we provide several bilingual staff to care for Spanish speaking patients. I’m proud to say my daughter is one of them. 

In my leadership role I inform and encourage fellow clinicians to use CMEs to learn valuable language skills.

Because of my time in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and my volunteer work at migrant worker clinics in Gettysburg, PA, I have distilled some key lessons for my fellow health care providers. 

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The population we serve is changing, and as Hispanic and Spanish-only speaking patients seek our care, it is our duty to recognize their needs and remove barriers to communication. Our centers should be welcoming places where patients have faith that they will receive high-quality care. 

Using Spanish-speaking providers and staff, and encouraging the use of CME credits as language learning opportunities is essential. Employing a multilingual and multicultural staff has significant benefits. At minimum, a reliable interpretation service via phone must always be available.

Conclusion

It is indisputable that good health demands a relationship of trust between patient and provider. Empathy is the foundation of this trust relationship. Lowering barriers of culture and language are the prerogative of the provider to cultivate a practice of healthy, engaged patients.

Widening horizons through travel, volunteering, and language learning are excellent opportunities to broaden perspectives and gain the soft skills that make the practice of medicine rewarding for both patient and provider.

 

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of OptumCare. The views and opinions expressed may change without notice.