For most people going to see the doctor can cause feelings of panic or uncertainty, especially when you know there’s something going on with your health.
These feelings can intensify for non-English speakers, who may struggle with understanding and communicating with their health care professionals. However, according to the Association of American Medical College’s “Diversity in Medicine: Facts and Figures” 2019 report, there is a growing number of active physicians who are Black, indigenous, Asian, Hispanic or other.
The AAMC, a not-for-profit association dedicated to transforming health through medical education, health care, medical research and community collaborations, noted in its 2019 report that 56.2% of active physicians are white. There are also 17.1% Asian, 13.7% unknown, 5.8% Hispanic, 5% Black or African American, 0.8% other, 0.3% indigenous and 0.1% Hawaiian or Pacific Islander of active physicians in the workforce as of 2019.
According to Zen Logsdon, media relations manager for the City of Hope in Santa Clarita, it is important for health care professionals to “to understand the patient’s culture and where they’re coming from, and to be able to express things in a way that is culturally sensitive to them.”
Dr. George Hajjar, an oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancer with the City of Hope in Santa Clarita who also oversees facilities as the regional medical director for the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County, agrees that language and culture play an important part in providing a form of “convenience and reassurance” to patients.
Cancer is one of many examples of a life-changing diagnosis, he added.
“So, get a team that can do that in way that the patient can understand it, understand their culture and understand how they feel,” Hajjar said. “People do really appreciate that. We do our best to have whatever supportive structure, so that we can make the journey of these patients as easy as possible.”
Hajjar, the first doctor in his family, was born in Aleppo, Syria. According to Hajjar, his desire to become a doctor was made stronger as he watched two aunts fight cancer, and while studying at Aleppo University when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
He became the family expert, and family members started asking him question after question seeking reassurance, and even now Hajjar will take consultation calls from family or from members of the community seeking answers to better understand their cancer or treatments.
“There’s a large Arabic community in the Los Angeles County area,” Hajjar said.
Hajjar said he’ll get a lot of calls from patients who want to speak with him because they want someone who can speak Arabic, or sometimes it’s a call for a second opinion because a patient wants to understand their disease better.
Whether it’s talking to someone overseas or to someone who drove an hour or more to the City of Hope in Arabic, Hajjar said there’s an honor in providing that comfort regarding their health issues.
“We see that with other people, too, who speak Spanish, Chinese, etc.,” Hajjar said. “People in general look for someone who speaks their language because they feel more attached and more comfortable.”
In the City of Hope, patients can also request a translator be present in case their physician or doctor may not speak their language, added Logsdon.
“Whether it’s at the diagnosis time, or after a few lines of treatments when things are not looking good, this is the kind of talk that comes from the heart,” Hajjar said. “It’s nice to be able to look people in the eye and talk with their language.”
“This is a big deal for us, and we see it over and over again. People get shocked because they may not understand what the doctor is trying to convey socially, not just medically, but if you are from the same background, you might be able to get the message [across] easier because you understand how the patient and family thinks.”