Cultural navigators help close the gaps in care

August 14, 2023 Swedish Communications

[6 min read]

In this article: 

  • Our cultural navigators help patients overcome language barriers to health care services. 
  • The team is currently comprised of 3 navigators and has a goal of adding additional navigators to serve more communities. 
  • Philanthropy launched this vital program. Your gift can help build this team. 

What happens when you’re visiting family in a country where you don’t speak the language and you unexpectedly need a complex, expensive surgery? The thought is daunting. And yet, many people routinely experience these types of stressful barriers to receiving care in our community, whether they need urgent attention or routine care. 

At Providence Swedish, cultural navigators act as the bridge between patients encountering cultural and language barriers—and the medical care they both need and deserve. Thanks to generous donors like you, this vital program has been connecting patients to care and resources since 2020. 

Saba Abera helped the visiting patient apply for financial assistance on a monthly basis to not only receive a lifechanging surgery, but also the follow up care required for a successful recovery. “Applying is an easy process, but with a language barrier, patients can easily become overwhelmed” says Saba. Having someone who knows the process and can answer any questions in the language they speak can be an invaluable support for patients unfamiliar with our health care system. 

In addition to Saba, two other cultural navigators, Mohammed Akmoosh and supervisor Silvia Kennedy, complete the three-person team. With each navigator coming from a different background, they bring complementary skills, cultural knowledge and community connections to the table to help us better serve patients who might otherwise slip through the cracks.  

Patients—or neighbors as they are called by our cultural navigators—are often referred to the program by our three family medicine clinics staffed by resident physicians and Providence Swedish staff physicians. They serve diverse communities across the Seattle area and offer care on a sliding scale. Patients who are having difficulty accessing care, understanding financial aid options or have other cultural or language barrier issues are connected with a navigator. 

Our Cultural Navigators by the numbers for 2022

100+ patients helped one-on-one, including 30+ enrolled in Apple Health. 

46 community events attended.  

mobile mammogram events co-hosted. 

70+ blood pressure cuffs distributed.  

35 community events and 8 mobile mammogram clinics planned for 2023. 

Listening and learning 

Many patients have reason to distrust the health care system or feel like they are not welcome. With that context in mind, our navigators often meet patients where they are—in a public space close to where they live. Conversations are informal and focus on listening to a patient’s experiences and what they need. “Sometimes we have to take off the professional hat and start these conversations as a fellow community member,” says Mohammad. “The beauty of this team is that we belong to these communities, and we’ve taken all the equitable actions we can to be humble, listen and create a space that feels safe. We are also learning from our neighbors at the same time.” This is why our navigators call patients neighbors—because they are neighbors first and foremost. 

The program is built to be flexible, so conversations don’t need to fit within rigid appointments. If a patient is only available on weekends or evenings, navigators work within those constraints to make this service truly accessible. In addition to accessing financial aid and assistance with appointment scheduling and prescriptions, our cultural navigators are also certified to enroll patients in Washington’s Apple Health plan (Medicaid). But assistance can go well beyond what we traditionally think of as health, supporting the whole person or family. 

That includes connecting patients with community support for housing, food, essential supplies and more. Silvia remembers a family that traveled from Mexico under difficult conditions. One daughter wanted to enroll in college but had not been able to finish high school. In partnership with the Mexican Consulate, Silvia helped the daughter enroll in an online program to get her diploma.

“There are so many layers to wellness,” says Silvia. “The health care system doesn’t give caregivers the time and space to ask our neighbors and community members what else they need to be well.”  

Silvia has also found that once she helps one person or family, they spread the word to their family and neighbors, expanding the reach of the program and strengthening community connections.  

Meeting communities where they are 

On top of helping patients and families one-on-one, the cultural navigation team also travels throughout the Puget Sound area to offer health screenings and services at community events. They give out blood pressure cuffs and spread awareness about high blood pressure, as well as partnering with our mobile mammography vans to offer mammograms and other life-saving screenings.  

“The hard work of our cultural navigators has really blossomed into organic relationships within the community,” says Jesus Elizalde-Lindgren, regional manager of Health Equity Integration “Look like me, sound like me, understand me. These are all components that are important to the services we provide.”   

While the cultural navigation team continues to build new connections, Jesus is working to expand the team further. Her goal is to add navigators who speak additional languages to complement the existing strengths of the team and serve even more communities.  

Philanthropy launched this vital resource, and your gift can help build out a team that fully reflects the patients we serve. You can support a healthy tomorrow for every community with your gift to the Swedish Foundation

Learn more and find a provider

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you need a family medicine physician or a specialist, Swedish can help. Find a doctor by using our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Providence Swedish is committed to investing in our communities

“Health equity starts with honoring the humanity in everyone you meet.”

Preguntas y respuestas con expertos de Swedish: Cómo preparar a su hijo para un nuevo año escolar

Swedish wants to help you get the care you need, when you need it

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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