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Report Finds Racial Disparities In Access To Hospital Care

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Originally posted 3/4/2009

A New report, by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, reveals that Seattle hospitals are failing to meet the needs of low-income communities of color and limited English speaking communities. The report, "Equal Treatment? Seattle Hospitals Put to the Test" was released Tuesday by the Washington Community Action Network and other community groups in front of Virginia Mason - which according to the group has the worst record of serving the poor in Seattle.

Using national data, community surveys, and hospital financial data, the report analyzed how well Seattle hospitals are responding to the needs of the communities they serve. The analysis found that geographic, language, and financial barriers in access to care disproportionately affect people of color compared to white counterparts.

Due to the high cost of medical coverage, many low-income people of color depend on Medicaid or charity care to meet their health care needs.

According to the report, Harborview Medical Center led other hospitals in reaching out to poor communities with higher percentages of spending on Medicaid and charity care patients compared to other Seattle hospitals, and Virginia Mason reported the smallest amounts of spending on services for low-income communities. Harborview Medical Center reported 11.59% of its gross revenue was used for charity care while Virginia Mason reported less than 1% of its gross revenue going to provide charity care.

Mystery shopping at Seattle hospitals showed that most hospitals were unprepared to address the needs of limited-English speakers, frequently hanging up on callers rather than identifying interpretation needs.

Amal Abdulrahman, a Washington CAN! member, shared the story of her life as child interpreter during her father's eight year battle to stay alive, as she recalled the stress and pressure she felt as a child, caught between following doctors' order or honoring her father's wishes.

"At the age of 14, I was more of an interpreter for my sick father than his daughter," said Amal. "I do not want any children to go through what I went through. We should not be asked to interpret complicated and confidential information, or be forced to make difficult decisions for our parents."

"This report highlights the need for our hospitals and government to implement policies that minimize language barriers to health care," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of One America, an organization based in Seattle committed to the vision of a unified nation with justice for all.

"Access to medical interpretation for patients who do not speak English as their first language is essential to ensure that they can communicate with their doctor about their health," added Jayapal. "Access to medical attention in a time of need is a basic human right."

The report also noted that communities north and directly west of downtown Seattle, which are more affluent and White, are healthier and have lower mortality rates than communities in the south, which have a higher concentration of people of color. Despite the higher need for medical services, people of color living in the south travel on average two and half miles further compared to white counterparts to reach the nearest hospital.

"Every person in this state should be able to receive quality medical attention when they need it in a timely manner," said Dorry Elias-Garcia, executive director of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, a non-profit organization in Seattle. "Lack of hospitals in low-income communities exacerbates racial disparities and denies low-income people of color the right to a healthy future. Hospitals have a moral and legal imperative to meet the needs of poor communities of color."

Complete Report: (Language Access Issues pg. 7-8)

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