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How Sonoma County Hospitals Lack in Spanish-Speaking Medical Staff is Impacting Patients

Ricardo Ibarra
Written by Ricardo Ibarra

It was a personal experience that made Yudith Vargas consider pursuing a career in medicine. When one of her uncles arrived from Mexico with terminal cancer, she wished she had more knowledge of health sciences. He, like her, did not have proper documentation. Without medical insurance, there was little that could be done to help save him.

She, as well as several of her family members were undocumented in Sonoma County, and many of them lacked access to medical care. It was something that defined her adolescence. “I started to become interested in health care”, she said.

She was 14 years old and already a volunteer at a medical center, a clinic that is now a campus of Santa Rosa Community Health (SRCH), where she is currently the Associate Director of Nursing. Eighteen years have passed since the moment she first reached out to them, and in that time she graduated from Elsie Allen High School and Sonoma State University (SSU).

Vargas has memories of belonging to a minority during her time at school: “In my class at SSU, there were 26 students in the nursing program and only three of us were bi-cultural and bilingual. If you think about the number of Latinos in Sonoma County, you would expect that number to be higher. I don’t see this representation reflected in the city or in the county”, said Vargas, now 32 and a resident of Santa Rosa.

Yudith Vargas is the Associate Director of Nursing at Santa Rosa Community Health. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

This disparity is also tangible in local hospitals, where the majority of doctors don’t have the skills to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients, said Doctor Enrique González, coordinator of the Latino Health Forum and now a retired physician. “This problem is not unique to Sonoma County. In California, we are 37% of the population but only 4% of doctors are Latinos”, said González, who practiced out of a clinic in Cloverdale.

He shared the experience of a friend who visited a hospital in Santa Rosa, where they had to use a medical attendant to help translate from English to Spanish. “They don’t understand the patients and the patients don’t understand the nurse or doctor speaking in terrible ‘Spanglish’, that is difficult for them to comprehend”.

He pointed out that without community clinics, “it would be a catastrophe, because private doctors and hospitals do not have the adequate services”.

At Santa Rosa Community Health, there are around 500 administrative and medical employees, and almost 50 percent of them are Latinos with bilingual skills, said Gabriela Bernal, SRCH’s Operations Officer.

The rapid and recently changing demographics of Sonoma County have generated health care challenges for community clinics, explained Bernal, around 44% of their patients are Latinos or Spanish speaking.

Dr. Toni Ramirez, left, talks with medical assistant Mayra Espinoza after examining a patient at Santa Rosa Community Health, in Santa Rosa on Monday, January 14, 2019. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“Many of them come in without medical insurance and with Medi-Cal, while other hospitals do not take patients with Medi-Cal or who are uninsured. One of our focuses is that they have access to health insurance, and if they qualify, to help them obtain that”, said Bernal.

One of the challenges is attracting sufficient doctors to a region where the cost of living is high, compared to other regions of the country.

“Sonoma County is not that attractive to medical professionals from other areas, because California’s costs can be prohibitive”, said Bernal.

For organizations like Latino Service Providers, there is hope. Their community mental health program, Testimonios, engages young volunteers who act as “health promoters”, explained director Guadalupe Navarro.

“We introduce young people to different health professions, providing tools of preparation and training. They see what it’s like to work in healthcare, and we hope that they will continue onto  higher education in these fields”, said Navarro.

The Testimonios program has been active for three years, and this new cycle will have 25 volunteers, who will be sharing their mental health experiences, from Petaluma to Healdsburg.

“There is a great need in the area of mental health, because there is so much stigma in the Latino community”, emphasized Navarro. “We want to normalize talking about our emotions and depressions.”

In 2015, Latino made up 26% of the population in Sonoma County but that is expected to grow to 51% in 2050, according to Todd Salnas, president of the regional St. Joseph Health.

Registered nurse Daniel Contreras handles a patient consultation over the phone at Santa Rosa Community Health, in Santa Rosa on Monday, January 14, 2019. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

However, 29% of them lack health insurance, compared to the four percent found in the Anglo-Saxon community.  At the Los Cien conference, recently hosted at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, Salnas acknowledged that there are other barriers Latinos face in accessing medical care such as: cultural barriers, language skills, long waits for appointments, insufficient medical insurance  coverage, transportation and fears related to migratory status.

Referring to the the new generations of young Latinos, Salnas said, “They are the ones who will be taking care of us when we are retired”.

A focal time for Bernal, of SRCH, is that large private hospitals in Sonoma County are not taking new patients, while SRCH is “taking new patients every day, regardless of their sex, race, values; we are a welcoming organization”.

Translated to English by La Prensa Sonoma intern, Mayra Lopez.

Contact the editor of La Prensa Sonoma, Ricardo Ibarra, by telephone at 707-526-8501 or by email at: ricardo.ibarra@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ ricardoibarra.

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