I had the privilege of attending “Sharpening Our Tools to Promote Reproductive Health Care,” a conference put on by Family Planning Advocates’ Immigrant Women’s Health Initiative. The program brought together immigrant and women of color and organizations serving immigrant women to learn how they can work together to advance their goals of linguistically appropriate and culturally competent health care for themselves, their communities and their organizations.
New York State has the second largest immigrant population in the nation—one in five New Yorkers, or four million, are foreign born. More than 150 languages are currently spoken in New York City alone, while more than 30 are spoken in the upstate city of Utica.
Lack of language assistance services undermines quality of care. Consequences include: avoidance of and delays to care, fewer visits for preventive care, more visits to the ER, misdiagnoses, unnecessary tests, increased financial debt and lack of insurance, and poor quality care in general.
Empowering immigrants to take control of their health care and enabling providers to offer care in an individual’s first language is a challenge, but not impossible with new technologies such as language lines.
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Understanding medical care and navigating our complex health care system is difficult enough for someone who speaks English, never mind for someone who doesn’t. But we all deserve to understand the care and treatment we receive and to be empowered to advocate for our own care. It’s a matter of basic dignity and respect.
Immigrants, regardless of their preferred language, deserve the best care possible, but unfortunately, it may not happen without demanding it.
Inspiring speakers shared volumes of information while encouraging participants to dig deep and share their stories. They expressed the need for women of color and immigrant women to get involved and work collaboratively with others in their advocacy. Their stories are critical in bringing new voices to the discussion.
Dr. Grace Mose, organizer of the conference, and an immigrant from Kenya herself, explained, “when we amplify our voice, we make better sense, we get heard, we get listened to.”
Here’s a few inspiring video clips from the conference:
The advocacy training was immediately followed by lobby visits to support New York’s Language Access Bill. Participants told their stories. They are witnesses to the struggles of many New Yorkers. For example, I heard a story of an immigrant woman bringing her young son to the doctor for an ear infection. The doctor prescribed liquid antibiotic to administer orally. The mother did not understand and began administering the liquid in the child’s ear! Had someone not been there to correct her in her own language later on, the child may have returned to the doctor with ear damage.
Another participant explained how her aunt who was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer must have an English –speaking family member with her in the hospital and for every doctor’s visit. Yet, to this day, she does not really understand what is going on. The family struggles to meet her needs while keeping up with their own work and families.
Legislators and staff heard these stories. Just like me, I know it impacted their thoughts on the bill and the importance or language access lines in medical settings and culturally competent care.
My take away: You cannot deny the powerful stories of immigrants to this country over the centuries. Their culture and experiences enrich us all. Their voices teach us about ourselves and should encourage us to take notice and speak out against injustice.