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NJ: Program helps immigrants learn health care system

Monday, August 10, 2009

David Arreola feels out of place when he takes his children to the doctor for the occasional cold or fever because he doesn't speak English well enough to explain their symptoms.
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"I feel uncomfortable," said Arreola, 39, a father of six who moved from Mexico 10 years ago. "I don't have the words."

Arreola's children, ages 11 to 18, are all fluent in English, so he tells them to describe their symptoms to the doctor. But he worries about whether they're adequately explaining their symptoms and whether they're getting proper care.

Health-care providers say language and cultural barriers can stymie their effort to provide proper health care to sick children whose parents are fluent in a language other than English.

For immigrants who are unfamiliar with America's health care system, rudimentary tasks such as paying medical bills, filling prescriptions and returning for follow-up visits are also more difficult. They are more likely to visit the emergency room for routine health issues and more likely to underestimate the role of nutrition, early immunization and preventative care in maintaining good health.

A new program being rolled out in Camden aims to help immigrant families in Camden become more literate about children's health issues.

A $250,000 New Jersey Health Initiative grant awarded last month to the Rutgers-Camden Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership will pay for consulting fees and training for parents and health-care providers for the Health Education Literacy Program, or HELP, for the next three years.

A curriculum will be developed for immigrant parents and the information will be passed on to medical students, parent educators and preschool personnel who will instruct immigrant parents in the HELP curriculum.

More than 200 parents have registered. The first round of participants should be able to navigate the health care system on their own by next summer, said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, director of the Rutgers-Camden Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership.

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