To keep people healthy we need to understand their culture first
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I work for a health insurance company owned by one of the country’s largest healthcare systems — which means that I am reminded every day of just how precious life is, and how fragile it can be. But nothing drove that home for me like losing a friend of my own.

Maria was one of my closest and oldest friends. A mother of three, she was wise and she was caring, always looking out for her friends, family and passing acquaintances.

She used to help out new mothers in our church by cooking meals and doing the cleaning they couldn’t get to, because she remembered what it was like to struggle to keep up. But it never occurred to her that she might need some attention, too.

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Maria* was busy and, like many of us in the Hispanic community, believed that you didn’t go to the doctor unless you were very sick. So by the time Maria finally made an appointment, she was very sick indeed. She had breast cancer, which probably would have been treatable if it had been found earlier. Instead, she died less than a year after her diagnosis.

 

She’s hardly the only one. Too often I see members of my community who could have been helped by care fail to receive it for no other reason than cultural stumbling blocks that could be easily removed.

Women are especially vulnerable. Many in the Hispanic community are traditional-minded — in this age of oversharing, we don’t believe in revealing the intimate details of their lives to strangers, even ones wearing a white coat. What’s more, many Latinas are uncomfortable with the idea of getting a check-up from a male OB-GYN, and if they don’t mind, their husbands often do. But most of them would never even think of requesting a female doctor. Doctors and hospital administrators are seen as authority figures to be treated with deference and respect (even if their advice is sometimes ignored), not as partners to work with.

This isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s a real crisis. Hispanics currently make up about 17 percent of the nation’s population, a number expected to skyrocket to approximately 30 percent by 2050.

Nearly 25 percent of Hispanic adults are uninsured, compared to about 15 percent of African-Americans, less than 10 percent of Asians and just 7 percent of white adults. All that adds up to tens of millions of people who risk getting second-rate care or worse, simply because our health care system isn’t speaking their language.

If the situation doesn’t change, if doctors, hospitals and health insurers don’t step up, the result will be uncounted human tragedies, and, in the long run, even more pressure on our already burdened health system.

Luckily, there are solutions, most of which don’t involve legislation or policy-making from Washington, D.C., but do require commitment from the Hispanic and the healthcare communities alike.

Doctors, hospitals and insurers, for instance, must look at cultural preferences not as niceties to be embraced or ignored at will but as absolutely critical elements in care, to be studied, understood and addressed.

At the very least, this means ensuring that people are offered information in the language they speak. And it means distributing this information not just in the clinic or hospital but also in centers of activity, like the local church, the corner grocery store and the neighborhood beauty salon.

My own health insurance company, CareConnect,understands that some of our members may want to see a female doctor or a native speaker of their own language, and is ready make those connections.

Of equal importance: Those of us who work in healthcare must build bridges to community groups and faith-based organizations. These highly trusted sources of information can help people start to see their local doctors and hospitals as a vital part of the fabric of their lives and key to the well-being of their families.

But community members, too, must make an effort to educate themselves about the importance of getting the care they need, and take concrete steps to make sure they and their loved ones don’t suffer needlessly.

A couple of months ago, I was having coffee with another close friend of mine. A man in his mid-fifties, he complained of a pain in his arm. It had been bothering him for a while but he hadn’t been to the doctor — so I got him up from the table and drove him there myself.

An EKG showed that he was on the brink of a heart attack, and within a few days he had a stent put in. And that’s why he’s home with his family today, instead of leaving them grieving.

As we continue to discuss how to mend our health system, let’s not ignore the seemingly softer issues like cultural sensitivities and sensibilities that, ultimately, have tremendous impact on the lives of so many Americans. By paying a little attention, we can save a lot of lives.

*Name changed for privacy

Rose Pinero is Senior Director of Community Relations and Commercial Sales at CareConnect Insurance Company, Inc., a provider-owned health insurance company.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.