For more than 20 years, Springfield, Mass.-based Mercy Medical Center’s Vietnamese Health Project has been a bridge between the city’s more than 5,000 Vietnamese residents and health care.

The project addresses cultural and language differences to break down barriers to better care for an immigrant community that accounts for about 5% of the city’s population.

The project’s two full-time Vietnamese community health care workers – assisted by volunteers – help more than 1,000 people a year through services that include access to health care, health insurance applications, selection of primary care providers, medical translations for physician appointments, home visits and health education programs.

Because the concept of Western medicine is foreign to many Vietnamese, the caseworkers not only build their clients’ understanding and trust in the health care system, but also educate providers about the Vietnamese culture, says Doreen Fadus, Mercy’s community health director.

“Their experience with the health care system wasn’t always a positive one,” she says. “We help them navigate what they often view as a complicated system, and offer support so they can receive the quality care they need.”

That’s important when a cultural issues can get in the way of more equitable and inclusive care, Fadus says. For instance, she observes that many Vietnamese don’t understand the reason for getting an annual checkup and traditionally view a hospital as a place to die. The project has helped “people work through their suspicion or leeriness” about American health care, she says.

The key to the project’s success is its community health workers, who Fadus describes as “mini ACOs – Accountable Care Organizations.” She says the staff are strong advocates for health access – “they’ll tell you 100% of their clients have health insurance coverage” – and improving the quality of care.

“They have the community’s trust,” she says.

The Vietnamese Health Project was launched in the early 1990s as a federally funded program with an emphasis on prenatal care. When funding expired and the program faced elimination, Mercy took it over. The hospital provided outreach to pregnant women, enrolling then in health insurance and scheduling prenatal care.

Word of mouth about the services grew among the close-knit Vietnamese community and “it quickly expanded into a multi-generational program,” says Fadus. That included raising awareness of ongoing health issues and advocating for the health of employees within Vietnamese-owned businesses.   

Fadus says support of the Vietnamese Health Project reflects Mercy’s mission of addressing the health needs of underserved populations and promoting more equitable care. She adds that serving a population who are “more aware and concerned for their own health results in a healthier community and reduces costs for everyone.”

She say the program’s biggest accomplishment may be in “its embrace of Vietnamese culture and helping it adapt to a Western health care system.”  

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