Overcoming language, cultural barriers in health care

Dr. Jennifer Powell

By Jennifer Powell, D.O.
Family Medicine in Malden, MA


Patients need to feel comfortable talking openly about their health for doctors to provide care that gets to the root of the problem.  However, that requires a lot of trust.  We have to show patients that we really want to get to know them. That means understanding their background, including the culture and family they grew up in and the language they speak.

My parents are from Taiwan. I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese at home in New Jersey. I even went to Chinese schools on the weekends to better learn the language. I used those skills during summers, when I traveled to Taiwan to stay with my father as he practiced medicine. I think that time in my father’s practice planted the seeds for my own future in medicine. You could say he was the first doctor I shadowed.

Jennifer Powell treats patients in the Asian-American community in Malden, MA

I never thought my experiences during childhood would draw me to a particular group of patients in the future. But when it came time for me to choose where I wanted to provide care, I saw a unique opportunity to treat the Asian-American community at Hallmark Health Medical Associates in Malden, Mass.

Malden’s Asian-American community

An increasing number of Asian-Americans are calling Malden home. In 1990, people of Asian heritage made up about 5 percent of the city’s population. Malden’s population now is about 20 percent Asian, and half of those people are Chinese.

In addition, many of these people are first-generation immigrants. In 2014, about 42 percent of Malden’s residents were born outside the U.S. With so many people coming from countries that speak languages other than English, our city, and its health care providers, face a big challenge.

If you can’t explain your health concerns to your doctor, it could mean you won’t get the treatment you need. Speaking English and Mandarin helps me connect with my patients. But language isn’t the only barrier we may face caring for patients.

Why culture makes a difference in care

Cultural differences can cause misunderstandings between patients and doctors. Realizing how culture can influence a person’s perceptions of health and medicine can really make a difference in understanding a person’s medical needs and how to communicate with them.

Here’s an example. In traditional Chinese medicine, treatment often includes various body and mind exercises alongside herbal medicine. It’s based on the belief that to improve one’s overall health, you need to address the root cause of an issue, not just the symptoms. When the body is healthy, all of its parts work in harmony.

This philosophy is similar to osteopathic manipulative medicine, a growing field in the U.S. that combines hands-on treatment and diagnosis with in-depth knowledge of the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, and bones. As a doctor of osteopathic medicine, I help my patients heal themselves by taking a holistic approach to treatment, promoting the health of the body and mind. I find this approach especially resonates with patients who are accustomed to Eastern medicine.

Another big difference between the West and East is how the family plays a part in each member’s individual health. In the U.S., health is a private issue that is closely guarded, sometimes even from friends and family. That’s not the case in China. When I visited my dad’s practice in Taiwan, I see spouses going to the doctor with their husband or wife.

In Chinese culture, there’s a strong communal aspect to health. Three generations often live in the same household. Health is openly discussed. This can have a big impact in how I treat people. A mother may come in stressed about her son’s health and her mother’s health, but meanwhile she is neglecting her own health!

It’s important for me to be accessible and provide treatment for everyone’s needs, whether they are a child, parent, or grandparent. I want to do everything I can to make my patients feel comfortable and promote their health. In Malden, that means speaking my patients’ language and understanding their culture.

You can schedule an appointment at Hallmark Health Medical Associates by calling us at (781) 321-3422.

Tags: asian, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, family health, family medicine, malden, Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine

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