By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
International Community Health Services (ICHS) staff members Odelia Wang and Nai Saephan see true diversity every day, both in the cultural backgrounds of their patients and their individual medical needs.
Misconceptions about low-income and medically underserved patients persist. Many people think that medical care only happens in hospital emergency rooms. This is a myth that Wang and Saephan want to dispel.
Both work at ICHS’ Holly Park Medical & Dental Clinic in southeast Seattle. ICHS is the largest Asian and Pacific Islander community health center in Washington state.
In 2007, about 16,000 people visited ICHS a total of 70,091 times; nearly one-quarter of them were uninsured. Another fact: Uninsured patient visits increased 130 percent since 2000.
Wang, a patient services representative and medical receptionist lead, says many people simply wait until the last minute when an urgent medical situation forces them to seek emergency care. Fear of seeing a doctor is also a factor.
She said, “They don’t know that they can take advantage of a community medical center because that is continuous care.” Vital Signs 2008, a report, cites a study that found having a community health center as a regular source of care reduced the likelihood of hospital admissions for avoidable conditions by 11 percent and emergency room visits by 19 percent for Medicaid patients.
In a recent report, the state’s 24 community health centers provided medical care to 10 percent of the state’s population, including half of the state’s uninsured children. Since 2000, they have consistently served one-third of the state’s uninsured patients. As a group, they provided medical care to nearly 600,000 patients during more than 2.3 million visits last year.
When Wang started working at ICHS six years ago, patients were mostly Asian and Pacific Islanders – 85 percent last year. Now, because of referrals from World Vision and World Relief, Wang said, “We have Somali patients. We have patients from Ukraine.” They also serve Hispanic, Ethiopian and Burmese patients.
ICHS and other community health centers offer education programs as well as urgent care. “The education programs will help them to be proactive in how to take care of themselves. Also, they will have one family doctor who is very familiar with their medical condition,” she said.
For many people, immigrants and refugees in particular, preventive medical care is an unknown concept, and health education programs were created to change that.
Many think that language barriers are not a major problem, but 64 percent of ICHS patients do not speak English. In addition to providing translation services, Wang said, “ICHS is able to provide the (medical) forms in different languages such as Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish and many other languages.”
Saephan has worked as an ICHS certified medical assistant for almost 12 years, performing medical procedures “… nurses don’t do.”
She even helps out when language barriers become an obstacle, translating for Laotian and Myan patients when necessary. She says she has seen patients over the years speak a total of 10 different languages.
She also stresses the importance of preventive medical care saying, “If people come (here) to get their preventive care on a regular basis, then, hopefully, they don’t have to go to an emergency room as often.”
Saephan sees mostly Vietnamese and Chinese patients, but “we also see African American and Caucasian patients.” Born in Laos, she pointed out, “Sometimes, people assume that if you’re born in Laos, they think you’re Laotian. But, actually, I’m Myan.”
Another misconception exists among the uninsured themselves. One of her patients had diabetes and high blood pressure, both chronic illnesses. The night before her appointment at Holly Park, Saephan says she was very nervous. “Because she didn’t have insurance, she was so scared that we would reject her.”
Saephan’s patient ultimately received medical care, but options such as applying for charity care and participating in diabetes support groups that speak different languages are available.
She emphasized, “They need to know that they can still get health care even if they don’t have insurance.” ♦
For more information about International Community Health Services, go to www.ichs.com.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.