Geisinger doctors team up to help Spanish speakers navigate healthcare during pandemic
COVID-19 created new challenges in communicating with Spanish-speaking patients and communities — and new ways to overcome the barriers.
Then COVID-19 hit Hazleton’s Spanish-speaking population hard.
“The pandemic accelerated the urgency of addressing issues” related to healthcare accessibility, says Dr. Gomez, who practices at Geisinger Kistler Clinic in Wilkes-Barre, where about 60 to 70 percent of his patients speak Spanish.
“If a certain part of the population isn’t getting the messages about social distancing or appropriately isolating after a diagnosis, that’s bad for everyone,” Dr. Naik adds.
Addressing language-related communication barriers
Before the pandemic struck, the two physicians had raised concerns about language-related communication barriers after jointly treating a Spanish-speaking woman with a complex pulmonary condition. Those conversations resulted in the formation of a Health Literacy Steering Committee.
“Spanish speakers face enough challenges advocating for themselves outside of the healthcare system,” says Dr. Gomez, who is fluent in Spanish. “We recognized that it was difficult for her to access the specialists and services she needed.”
And patients who don’t speak English are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding complex or life-threatening diagnoses without adequate translation services, he notes.
COVID-19, he adds, “raised alarms in the system. One day, we had 100 COVID cases in Luzerne County. The next day, it was over 400. And most of them were in Hazleton.”
While local Spanish-speaking residents had access to information about the disease from news sources, “the bigger issues are as simple as calling into a clinic and not getting a Spanish-language option,” Dr. Gomez says.
Advocating for Spanish speakers — “We’re here to help, and we care”
Dr. Naik credits Dr. Gomez with leading the effort to alert Geisinger leadership to the need for better communication with and advocacy for Spanish speakers, many of whom work in essential jobs that bring them in close contact with others.
“People who’ve had COVID-19 feel pressured by their employers to go back to work,” she notes. “They need to know that they can speak to their physician about this. Providers are here to work with employers so employees can return to work safely.”
She adds that since the initial spike in cases, Geisinger has taken action to provide Spanish-language education about the importance of handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks. And Dr. Gomez advocated for inclusion of a Spanish-language option on Geisinger’s COVID-19 hotline, which connects callers directly to nurses who can answer questions about the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Gomez also created Spanish-language signs reminding recovering patients about the importance of getting exercise, eating healthy foods and taking their medications.
And Dr. Naik has worked to develop her own more effective strategies to help Spanish-speaking patients with COVID-19. For example, when loud lifesaving equipment is in use, she’s found that it’s easier to speak to patients over the phone, even when they’re in the same room
“There are still barriers and work to do,” Dr. Naik adds. “But we need patients to know that we’re here to help them, and we care about them.”
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Los médicos de Geisinger se asocian para ayudar a guiar a los hispanohablantes en cuanto a la atención médica durante la pandemia
El COVID-19 crea nuevos retos en la comunicación con los pacientes y las comunidades hispanohablantes, y nuevas formas de superar barreras.
La médica neumóloga Sreelatha Naik y el médico residente de medicina general Alex Gomez, MD ya habían comenzado a abogar para que los residentes hispanohablantes del noreste de Pensilvania tengan un acceso más fácil a los servicios de atención médica.
Luego, el COVID-19 golpeó con fuerza a la población hispanohablante de Hazleton.
Cómo superar las barreras de comunicación relacionadas con el idioma
Añadió que los pacientes que no hablan en inglés son especialmente propensos a malinterpretar los diagnósticos complejos o de enfermedades potencialmente mortales si no reciben los servicios adecuados de traducción.