Posted on October 2, 2019

Vietnamese Elderly Continue to Struggle with Language and Culture in Health Care

Hanh Truong, Orange County Register, September 30, 2019

For about a week, Tricia Nguyen’s 93-year-old grandmother spent most of her time alone in her hospital bed, abstaining from drinking water to avoid soiling her diapers and having no way to ask for help.

The only time she met with medical staff was when her two grandchildren came to visit and communicated with them in English.

“There was only one nurse that was able to speak Vietnamese,” Nguyen said, months after the ordeal. “I think out of the seven or eight days, she was lucky to get two days to communicate with the nurse.


The hurdle of providing comfort and care when language is a barrier is not new in health care and is an issue being address across the nation. It is especially pertinent in communities such as Orange County’s Little Saigon, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Southeast Asia. Almost 200,000 residents who can only speak Vietnamese are seeking care from area hospitals and health care providers.

“Limited English proficiency is a large reason as to why Asian American groups, such as Vietnamese Americans, don’t receive timely primary care and even behavioral health care,” Joe Lee, training and technical assistant director of the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations, said.

The group advocates for improving health care services in community clinics and health centers in under-served Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

There is a shortage of health care providers that meet the linguistic needs of immigrants and refugees, he said. “When you have zero trust and zero communication, the patient is often discouraged to follow up on medical care.”


Now some 10 years into his career, Dr. Danny Vo, a primary care doctor for Hoag Medical Group, said he’s experienced the complication of language barriers in health care. He is fluent in Vietnamese, but when his patient speaks another language, Vo said he has to depend on talking about symptoms and treatments through translators.


Desires to not embarrass or even scare a family member when talking about health issues can lead to pertinent information about symptoms or personal medical history being left out or misunderstood in translations by a well-meaning family member, he said.


Those who don’t speak English need to know there are a variety of services available to help them communicate with those providing them care, Lee said of his concern about recent proposals by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back parts of the Affordable Care Act.


“It’s a patient’s right to have language-interpreting services,” Vo said. “Communicating with patients is one of the main jobs as physicians. If we can’t get an accurate history or if our patients can’t understand, it makes providing good care challenging.”