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How local providers, community groups work to address Latino health concerns
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Art Gallegos helps distribute food at Ninth District Headstart Thursday, April 11, 2019, with the Georgia Mountain Food Bank. Gallegos is the Neighborhood Coordinator at the Georgia Mountain Food Bank. - photo by Scott Rogers

The numbers don’t lie.

And they demand attention.

About 28 percent of Hall County’s population is Latino, according to 2018 census figures, and this demographic accounts for more than 40 percent of Gainesville’s population.

New and ongoing initiatives to address the health needs of the county’s growing Latino population have been highlighted by increased collaboration among local health care providers.

Dr. Antonio Rios, chief physician for the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, said education for Latinos about specific health risks and how to access medical services is critical in meeting the demands of this sizable population.

For 20 years, Rios said he has witnessed the growth of the Latino demographic countywide, and cultural barriers to health access can be significant.

“We can definitely do more,” he added.

But strides are being made.  

Having Spanish-speaking staff and volunteers is critical in outreach to the Latino community, Rios said, something the Northeast Georgia Health System has adopted for numerous programs.  

And, though a challenge, providing convenience presents opportunities for health providers to meet patients at their places of employment, at their children’s schools, and at churches, to conduct outreach and screenings.

Additionally, Rios said many of the county’s Latinos are first- or second-generation immigrants, which means education levels may be lower and the types of jobs they work – often working-class, late- or early-morning shifts in local mills and plants – limits their flexibility to access health care.

So, even small things like shifting hours of operation can be beneficial to these patients.

“We try to adjust,” Rios said. “Regardless of the type of population, we know what the consumer wants, and that’s convenience.”

Other challenges, however, include finances. Many Latinos and immigrants lack health insurance or have high-deductible plans.

“It’s one of the biggest barriers we find,” said Lissette Nunez, a clinical care manager and diabetes educator with the Northeast Georgia Health System.

According to its most recent Community Benefit Report for 2017, the Northeast Georgia Medical Center provided about “$6.8 million in community benefit programs and outreach through its Gainesville, Braselton and Barrow campuses. Health education was provided through free community lectures, screenings, various support groups and the semi-annual health magazine.”

Additionally, to help cover financial gaps for any patients in need, the medical center spent $19.9 million on charity care for Hall County residents alone in the 2017 fiscal year.

The Northeast Georgia Health System’s diabetes education outreach to the Latino community has intensified over the last 18 months by expanding programs and the frequency of their availability.

Latinos have a higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. The causes are numerous, but they include age, diet, genetics, lifestyle and socio-economic status.  

According to a study from the University of Florida, “the prevalence of total diabetes (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) among all Hispanic/Latino groups was roughly 16.9 percent for both men and women, compared to 10.2 percent for non-Hispanic whites.”

Hannah Day, program manager of diabetes at the Northeast Georgia Health System, said her team provides “what we call survival skill education.”

Nunez said the health system also is promoting a Spanish-language class on diabetes self-management in partnership with Good News Clinics.

And that’s just the start of collaboration with both public and nonprofit agencies “to be sure we’re delivering the message in a way that it’s understood,” Rios said.

Nunez said goals this year include increasing diabetes Type 2 prevention, partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diabetes curriculum, and increasing participation in diabetes educational support groups.

“We knew then that we could really increase our access to the Latino population,” Nunez said. “We don’t see the numbers we would like to, but we’re still working on that.”

For Good News Clinics in Gainesville, which is supported by the Northeast Georgia Health System, outreach to the Latino and immigrant community is a high priority.

According to Executive Director Liz Coates, Latinos accounted for 592 of 1,073 medical appointments in March.

“That is a typical statistic,” Coates said. “Good News Clinics is fully Spanish-English bilingual in our medical and dental clinics, and has a full-time bilingual counseling department.”

About 40 percent of Good News’ total patients are Latino, many of whom are uninsured.

“Our website and community outreach materials, health education classes, and services are bilingual and we strive to be culturally aware and fully welcoming,” Coates said.

Coates added that the majority of the clinic’s staff providing direct services to patients are Latina women, including Care Manager Carmen Garcia.

“Many of our volunteer eligibility specialists who do patient intake speak Spanish or are Latino,” Coates said. “One standard of GNC is to ensure that our patients feel secure and are treated with dignity across demographics.”

For Vanesa Sarazua, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance GA, or La Alianza, based in Gainesville, collaboration comes in many forms.

Sarazua said it was Georgia Power, for example, that served as a critical sponsorship of the health fair last year.

The Hispanic Alliance will host its 2019 health fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 8 at Lakeshore Mall to connect the local Latino community with free resources and health screenings.

Sarazua said her organization is partnering this year with Northside Hospital, “who will bring the much-needed mammogram mobile to our fair.”

The Northeast Georgia Health System also is supporting the fair with diabetes screenings, Sarazua said, and the local public health department and other clinics will provide additional screenings, education and services.

“Health outreach and access is one of our focuses in our mission in this community and as we see needs and gaps, we will adjust the health outreach to meet those needs yearly,” she added. “At our annual health fair, we hope we will grow with different community resources supporting our efforts.”

This is how, Sarazua added, groups can address the gaps in referrals and services for Latinos in Hall County.

The Georgia Mountain Food Bank also is big on collaboration, working with Good News Clinics, for example, to provide “prescription food boxes” that are purposefully packaged to meet the individual dietary needs of patients.

And through its Neighborhood Fresh food delivery program, the food bank makes visits to apartment complexes and low-income neighborhoods where Latinos predominantly reside, such as Park Hill Drive and the Melrose public housing units on Queen City Parkway.

Visits to the Head Start program, which enrolls a high number of children from Latino households, is also on the program’s route.

Executive Director Kay Blackstock said it works “farmers’ market style” with many options and choices of fresh produce and other goods made available.

“We’re not treating that population any differently than we do anyone else, we just know those are areas where we see the highest concentration of need,” Blackstock said. “We go where we know there are children and families in need.”