Hispanic Heritage Month is a monthlong celebration (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) in the United States each year. It aims to recognize and celebrate the contributions, culture and history of Hispanic and Latinx Americans, as well as the heritage of the diverse and vibrant communities with roots in Spanish-speaking countries.
For healthcare workers, Hispanic Heritage Month presents an excellent opportunity to learn about the unique healthcare needs and cultural factors that can impact the care and well-being of Hispanic and Latinx patients, who account for about 19% of the U.S. population as the second largest racial/ethnic group behind white Americans. Culturally competent care is essential in providing effective, respectful and patient-centered healthcare services to individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Understanding health disparities
Healthcare workers should gain insights into the specific health disparities affecting Hispanic and Latinx communities. These disparities may include higher rates of certain chronic conditions such as obesity or barriers to accessing healthcare services.
According to Pew Research Center, Hispanic adults are also less likely to have health insurance or to get preventative medical care than other Americans. Additionally, Pew reports that Hispanic Americans identify employment in high-risk health occupations as the primary reason for their community's generally poorer health outcomes compared to other U.S. adults. In total, 53% believe that the nature of their jobs significantly contributes to the health disparities among Hispanics in the United States.
In Pew’s focus group discussions, some participants shared their feeling that doctors may not always offer the best treatment options to Hispanic people. As one man in the group explained:
“I think a lot of times when they see us coming in or they see that they’re helping us out, they don’t feel like they have to give us the best medicine or they need to give us the best hope because they already feel like we probably come in with bogus insurance, if we even have insurance … So, they give us stuff that’s not as great or they don’t give us all the best information because they feel like we’re poor.”
An example of exemplary Latinx community outreach is Kaiser Permanente’s partnership with National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) to connect business owners with the healthcare resources they need. NALCAB is a national network of more than 130 organizations in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico with a mission to advance economic mobility in Latinx communities.
According to the Pew study, Hispanic adults and Hispanic immigrants – especially more recent immigrants – are also most likely to say they prefer to see a fellow Hispanic doctor or other healthcare provider. The medical industry should promote diversity within the healthcare workforce to better reflect the communities their organizations service. A diverse team can better understand and respond to the needs of a diverse patient population.
For example, the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, located in an area with a rich cultural history and diverse population, has a mission to increase the number of South Side youth who acquire life-saving health emergency response skills. One of their high school pipeline programs, Medical Careers Education and Emergency Preparedness (MedCEEP), is an eight-week summer initiative that offers comprehensive career panels with insights into various medical professions. It also features didactic sessions focused on health disparities, which may improve healthcare equality among Latinx and Black communities.
According to a 2021 research study published in Health Affairs, one in seven people in the United States speak Spanish at home, and 25 million people in the United States have limited English proficiency — demographic trends show that these language barriers are more likely to increase than decrease.
The researchers determined that modifications to payment structures and educating healthcare providers might be essential to effectively tackle language obstacles and the health disparities linked to them. The report concluded:
“Ensuring adequate funding for interpreter services is essential if health system leaders are to prioritize language access and integrate it seamlessly into the daily workflows. In addition, policy makers should consider establishing and enforcing national benchmarks for the certification and training of qualified medical interpreters and qualified bilingual medical providers.”
Additionally, medical practices and organizations should make healthcare materials and resources available in Spanish and make sure they are culturally appropriate to effectively communicate important health information. In 2021, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) launched a Spanish version of its QuestionBuilder app, which can help Latino patients prepare for their in-person or telehealth appointments. Information about the app, including an instruction video, is available on the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website.
More Spanish language resources live on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) website: Various Spanish versions of healthcare publications and information are available to assist Spanish-speaking individuals in understanding their benefits.
Healthcare workers should be open and respectful to cultural beliefs and practices that may influence treatment choices or health-seeking behaviors. Avoiding assumptions and judgments is crucial.
It’s also important to prioritize engaging with local Hispanic community organizations to understand the unique challenges and needs of the community. Collaborating with these organizations can help healthcare workers tailor their services to meet the specific requirements of the population they serve.
By incorporating these practices, fully understanding health disparities for the Latinx community and making Spanish language materials accessible, healthcare workers can enhance their cultural competence and provide more effective and respectful care to Hispanic and Latinx patients, contributing to improved patient trust, health outcomes and patient satisfaction. Cultural competency is an ongoing process that requires continuous learning, reflection, and open-mindedness to provide the best possible care to all patients.