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MULTICULTURAL MEDICINE : Hospitals are going beyond cursory measures to understand the needs of patients. Some schedule Cesareans on propitious dates for Asian women. : Others offer ethnic food or allow families to perform rituals.

January 27, 1994|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The morning after Suwen Shen's son was born, a Garfield Medical Center nurse swaddled her baby in a red-and-green blanket--avoiding white, the traditional Chinese funeral color.

The nurse also brought a breakfast tray with a man tou roll, rice porridge and warmed soybean milk, knowing that in Chinese culture, cold fluids are taboo for new mothers and sick people.

Shen, a 31-year-old Taiwanese native, blissfully turned her thoughts away from nagging superstitions and toward her newborn, who, she hinted on the mid-January day after his birth, already has the makings of a doctor.

"It made me feel like home," said Shen, a south Orange County resident who came to the Monterey Park hospital primarily because of its multicultural environment. "It made me feel like they care and respect our culture." As the San Gabriel Valley's demographics change, Garfield Medical Center and a few other hospitals are extending themselves beyond the basics of providing translators, multiethnic staffs and trilingual signs and forms, actions that cost tens of thousands of dollars. These efforts--no matter how expensive--are not always enough in a fiercely competitive health-care market, in which hospitals are offering more culturally based extras than ever before. In ethnically diverse areas such as Monterey Park and Alhambra, hospitals are boning up on the folklore and traditions of their multicultural communities, sometimes even bending the rules for the sake of a patient's or family's peace of mind.

"There is a major trend in the hospital community toward the increasing recognition of ethnic and racial diversity," said David Langness, a vice president of the Hospital Council of Southern California trade group. "I see hospitals beginning to go beyond the standard signs in different languages and staff people who can translate etc., into a deeper recognition of the cultural differences in certain populations and ways to treat them."

The push for cultural awareness is part business, part goodwill, said Langness.

"What we're seeing in Los Angeles and Southern California is the first world metropolis," he said. "Hospitals have to respond to that . . . if they don't, they'll lose patients. It's not a matter of being politically correct. It's a matter of responding to your patients' needs."

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Asian culture is particularly rich with ancient superstitions associated with milestones, such as birth and death--beliefs that hospitals such as Garfield, where Asians account for 55% of the patients, cannot afford to ignore.

Other hospitals with relatively large minority populations include Alhambra Hospital, where Asian, white and Latino patients are seen in roughly equal numbers; and San Gabriel Valley Medical Center, where patients are 55% white, 26% Latino, 16% Asian and 3% other groups.

By contrast, at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena--the Valley's largest--only 7% of the patients are Asian and 22% are Latino, according to 1992 statistics, the latest available. Consequently, Huntington and other hospitals with fewer minority patients have made relatively few changes to accommodate ethnic populations.

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The nod to multiculturalism in medicine is sometimes as simple as adding a pair of chopsticks to a hospital tray or as thoughtful as offering gift-shop wrapping paper in the Chinese lucky color of red, the way Alhambra Hospital does.

Or as savvy as providing mahjong sets for Asian recreational therapy patients, the way Garfield does.

Or as community-minded as celebrating the Chinese New Year on Feb. 10 with gifts for newborns, the way San Gabriel Valley Medical Center in San Gabriel will do.

On a deeper level, hospital staffs are learning about and accommodating the traditional rituals that some families and patients swear by. At several local hospitals, for instance, expectant Chinese mothers who need Cesarean sections ask their doctor to deliver at an auspicious time and day, as selected by a fortuneteller.

Garfield nurses say they will wrap the nutrient-rich placenta in a plastic bag for Vietnamese mothers who take it home to eat or for Filipino mothers who bury the placenta with books in the belief that the ritual will make the baby smart.

And at Alhambra Hospital, administrator Elaine Reavis remembers the time last November when a Chinese Buddhist family asked that a loved one's body stay in the hospital room for eight hours after death so the soul would have a chance to depart while a monk chanted the proper prayers. The hospital agreed to bend its rules.

Tied to the respect for tradition is a recognition of the mind's power to heal, said Pitzer College sociology Professor Jose Calderon. For instance, Calderon said, when he was sick as a boy, his mother put potatoes on his head as a way to draw the fever out, an old Mexican folk remedy that he says is medically harmless but psychologically healing if a patient believes that such a "cure" works.

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