One afternoon an elderly Hispanic couple timidly approached Juan Hurtado, an Alameda Health System (AHS) Health Advocate volunteer at AHS-Highland Hospital.
They were visibly upset and carried a letter and medical bill. They thought they may owe money to AHS but couldn’t understand the documents written in English which they did not speak.
While Hurtado, now a Health Advocate Coordinator in Care Management, speaks Spanish fluently, he was not aware of the billing process for patients. But that didn’t stop him. He was committed to helping this family.
“I saw how concerned they were and I was moved to find a way to assist them in understanding the bill,” said Hurtado. After making a phone call to the contact number listed at the bottom of their letter, he was able to speak to a representative who confirmed it was a summary of their services and no payment was due.
“Eres mi ángel!” (You are my angel!), the woman repeated in delight when Hurtado shared the good news.
“I wanted more moments like that,” said Hurtado and it was then that I decided I was going to pursue a career in health care where I could make a difference in people’s lives and contribute to closing disparity gaps not only in the Hispanic community, my community, but for all communities in need.”
Hurtado recalls accompanying his parents and other adult relatives to doctor appointments and serving as their interpreter at seven years old. He also assisted filling out insurance forms, translating documents and arranging transportation. His parents moved from Mexico to Long Beach, California where they met, and where Hurtado and his sister were born and raised. He is the first in his family to graduate from high school and college.
“Health literacy is critical for bridging the disparities gap,” said Hurtado. “There are many situations where patients who do not speak English will nod and say they understand what a physician is saying during a clinic visit when in fact, they do not. In addition, patients who do not speak English fluently or at all, may feel afraid or unable to ask questions of their physician. My mom doesn’t speak English so if she was at one of our hospitals or wellness centers, I would want someone looking out for her and making her feel supported, listened to and understood,” said Hurtado.
Hurtado said the perceived power dynamic between patients and their physicians is another contributing factor to communication failures.
To support health literacy, AHS has a robust Interpreter Services Department that provides interpreters for patients during medical visits either in-person, by video visit or by phone. Of the more than 20 languages spoken by AHS patients, Spanish language translator services are the most requested.
In his tenure at AHS, Hurtado has worn several hats including community health worker and now Health Advocate Coordinator in Care Management, where he continues his passion to support patients in need. In his current role, he trains Health Advocate volunteers to help address the social determinants of health by connecting patients with resources. AHS Health Advocates form partnerships with community organizations that can assist patients with legal aid, housing, food services and other social services including mental health programs.
Hurtado and the Care Management team also look for funding opportunities to support AHS patients and their families. With the help of the AHS Foundation, they recently secured a grant from Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway grocery stores for food gift cards to give patients when they are getting their COVID vaccine or coming in for health screenings.
Hurtado recalls when he first arrived at AHS how he immediately felt at home. He appreciated the diversity of the staff and their commitment to provide the best possible care to a diverse and underserved community. “I was able to help patients by connecting them with community partners and programs that helped make their lives a little easier,” he said. “These were simple but important things I had already been doing for my own family and I felt privileged to do the same for our patients and their families.”
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