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A decade-old hospital program for Asian Americans wants to help reduce health disparities

The Asian Health Services program at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey employs multilingual staff and offers targeted disease screening programs.
Patients meet with Asian Health Services staff at Holy Name Medical Center during Annual Health Festival on Sept. 26, 2015 at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Patients meet with Asian Health Services staff at Holy Name Medical Center during Annual Health Festival on Sept. 26, 2015 at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey.Victoria Matthews / Holy Name Medical Center

Kyung Hee Choi had worked on Wall Street for more than two decades when she decided to take an early retirement in 2002, right after the 9/11 attacks. An immigrant from South Korea, Choi believed she was living the American Dream and wanted to do something altruistic after being shaken by tragedy.

"I said, 'I've gotten so much help from American people, American community, and I have to give back,'" Choi said.

You can’t just hire a few Asians and put them in an office and say I have an Asian health program.

While volunteering, she recognized that the approaches some health care providers took — “just sitting there, just waiting for patients to arrive” — contrasted with the ones she had learned about developing customer service.

Working with what she knew best, Choi created a business model for a “Korean Medical Program,” now housed at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.

The initiative hired Korean-speaking staff members, introduced Korean cuisine to the hospital’s menu, and participating doctors developed medical screening programs for diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Kyung Hee ChoiCourtesy of Holy Name Medical Center

Now in its 10th year, the program has been a success, serving upwards of 45,000, according to hospital. It has also been adapted to serve Chinese, Filipino, Indian and Japanese communities as Asian Health Services.

“With community hospitals like Holy Name Medical Center, our mission is to serve our community,” Choi said. “Our community has changed a lot. It’s inevitable that our priority has to be focusing on the fastest growing, and the largest pockets of our population.”

Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, going from 11.9 million to 20.4 million people between 2000 and 2015.

But as the community grows, it has had to deal with health needs. Research presented in 2016 by the Center for Asian Health at Temple University found that Asian Americans experience health disparities in cancer, chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, mental health, and among the elderly. Asian Americans had the highest mortality rate for liver and stomach cancer, the most preventable cancers, according to researchers.

The Asian Health Program's efforts to address those issues don't only include language. The program has helped register approximately 24,000 individuals for Medicaid, according to Holy Name, and when the program’s doctors found that illnesses like diabetes and breast cancer were more prevalent among patients, they began screening and treatment programs for those diseases.

Ultimately, Choi’s goal is to see her program emulated in places where there is a need for culturally sensitive healthcare.

“To me, I see the need, and I see the methodology working. We want to package this so we can spread our knowledge much wider,” Choi said.

The AHS Chinese Medical Program Chinese New Years Celebration, held at Holy Name Medical Center on Jan. 21, 2017.Jeff Rhode / Holy Name Medical Center

Several hospitals across the U.S. have contacted Holy Name to look at implementing similar programs.

The University of Chicago’s James Bae created one with Choi's input that works with ethnic communities in the city. Bae used existing resources the university hospital had for its international patients and went into community spaces to inform them of the services available.

“We deal with the most complicated care, and without speaking good English, you could not navigate the system,” he said.

Ming-der Chang, who works at New York-Presbyterian Queens said that when she came to that hospital four years ago, they had some of the same services as Holy Name, but the community didn’t know they existed.

The Filipino Medical Program at Holy Name Medical Center hosted a health fair at Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Feb. 14, 2016.Victoria Matthews / Holy Name Medical Center

“I went to get guidance and experience from Mrs. Choi about how she had been so successful in the program, and how can we use her experience to help us set up the program here,” Chang said.

Dr. Yanghee Woo, the current president of the Korean American Graduate Medical Association and a surgeon scientist doctor at City of Hope, described Choi as a beacon in the field of culturally sensitive care.

“She was able to come up with a plan that is not just service, but also financially stable,” she said.

But, Woo added, it’s important to note that the Asian Health Services program is not directly translatable to every state and hospital, because each area has their own needs.

Holy Name Medical Center president and CEO Michael Maron said he hopes people see their program is more than just a marketing campaign and that it’s ingrained in the culture of the hospital.

We deal with the most complicated care, and without speaking good English, you could not navigate the system.

“You can’t just hire a few Asians and put them in an office and say 'I have an Asian health program.' The entire organization, everybody has to embrace it, and support it, and understand what’s going on,” Maron said.

Since starting the initiative, Holy Name has also added Hispanic and Jewish-serving programs. Eventually, Choi and the Holy Name Medical Center team want to build a robust understanding of what culturally sensitive care looks like for its full staff.

To do so, they have developed a pilot training program that would teach every employee — from ER doctors to the parking attendants — how to provide culturally sensitive care.

The training consists of educating the staff about knowledge like red being a symbol of death in Korean culture, so one should not use red pen on their medical charts, or that a large number of immigrants from Asian countries may not be accustomed to paying for health care services that had been free in their home countries.

“Everybody has a culture,” Choi said, “the subgroups will continue, but we’re also focused on a broader program.”

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