Students bridge cultural gaps in health care

Group offers assistance focusing on Hispanics

April 11, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

In Liz Kim's native Los Angeles, the signs of an active Latino community surround her - Spanish-language billboards, bilingual restaurant menus and the Spanish-speaking interpreters on staff at local hospitals.

"In California, everything is bilingual," she said.

"I didn't know it was a problem anywhere until I came to Baltimore."

Three years after arriving at the Johns Hopkins University to study neuroscience, Kim is coordinator of Programa Salud, a student project aimed at removing cultural and linguistic barriers that many Hispanics and Latinos in Baltimore face when seeking medical care.

The group of mostly pre-med Hopkins students runs what it calls "cultural competency workshops" for medical students, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.

The skilled Spanish-speakers in the group volunteer as interpreters at hospitals and clinics.

And they work with nonprofit organizations and city Health Department programs to organize seminars - and translate the speakers' words into Spanish - on topics relevant to the Latino community, including children's nutrition, HIV/AIDS, prostate cancer and the dangers of lead poisoning in Baltimore's older housing.

"It's like I told my cell biology lab: Most of us are here because we want to go to med school," sophomore Neena Qasba said yesterday at Salud's third annual student leadership conference on the university's Homewood campus. "But there's a whole other side of medicine that's just as important as the proteins and receptors we're learning about."

Programa Salud got its start in late 2000 after two Hopkins pre-med students read in the newspaper about a report documenting the language and cultural barriers hampering Baltimore Hispanics' access to health services. Maria del Pilar Ortega and Rumana Rahman contacted one of the report's authors, Angelo Solera, an educator for Baltimore HealthCare Access Inc., a quasi-public agency of the city Health Department, and asked whether they could be his interns.

"He told them, `You're students. You're at Hopkins. Everyone knows Hopkins is the quote-unquote medical capital. Why not start your own student health initiative?'" Qasba said. "And we have."

With Solera's guidance - he has remained the group's mentor - Salud began monthly workshops in August 2001 at Union Memorial Hospital. The presenters teach medical providers, among other things, why a Hispanic woman might not consent to medical treatment without her husband's input and why a patient's nodding might not mean he understands his doctor's explanations.

The students also set up a 24-hour pager service for Union Memorial to summon Salud's Spanish-speakers to the hospital when doctors need translation help with their patients. Katy Juhaszova, a junior international studies major, estimates that she was called in a dozen times over two school years, including once to help doctors explain to a Hispanic woman why she underwent a Caesarean section and what was wrong with her newborn.

"It's really nice to be using [a] skill in a situation where you're really useful," she said. "It makes your day."

After ending their partnership with Union Memorial, the group has worked this school year with several clinics and is searching for others interested in Salud's combination of cultural workshops and interpretation services.

"The issues they talk about in my Intro to Health Policy class are the problems we're trying to solve with Salud," Kim said. "It's really shown me that I didn't have to wait to be a doctor to make a difference this way."

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