LIJ adjusts to immigrant patients’ cultural needs

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Since Queens is a mecca for immigrants from around the globe, it is a given that there are vast numbers of people living in the borough who have different ethnic heritages and cultural beliefs.

With diversity comes change and the need to accommodate the religious and cultural habits of new Americans. But how do hospitals, which service all of the borough’s population, meet the varying requirements of its international patient population?

Steve Grable, associate executive director for clinical and ancillary clinical services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New Hyde Park, said because of the many groups who inhabit the multicultural borough the hospital uses a manual to teach the nurses about their varied customs.

When a patient is admitted to the hospital from a foreign country with different cultural, dietary preferences and laws, the first step is for the nursing staff to read about the patient’s background in a reference book.

The reference manual, called “Honoring Patient Preferences, a Guide to Complying with Multi Cultural Patient’s Requirements,” outlines the vast differences in the world’s populations.

“The manual lists all of the cultures and religions known to man,” Grable said. “It is a resource guide to the attitudes and differences from birth to death. For example, most people put the arms of the dead across the chest, which is no good for Orthodox Jews.”

Reading from the manual, Grable said Haitians will avoid eye contact when talking to you as a sign of respect. This is the opposite of the custom in the United States, where people are taught that when talking to somebody, you should make eye contact.

“The book is a good start for a nurse when dealing with someone they have not encountered,” he said. “It provides good insight into things we take for granted.”

To get around the language barrier that exists between doctor and patient the hospital has a double-headed phone that connects instantly to a translator. The service, which has translators for 150 languages, takes about 20 seconds to connect so that the patient and hospital staff can talk to each other.

LIJ Medical Center is an 829-bed tertiary care facility comprised of Long Island Jewish Hospital, Schneider Children’s Hospital and Hillside Hospital.

The book and phone are just two parts of the steps designed by the hospital to educate its staff about different cultural and religious customs — many involving dietary law — in an effort to better treat patients. So, the hospital, which serves more than 4,000 meals a day, has something for everyone.

“We have acknowledged the need to service different groups,” said Joan Oxford, director of food nutrition services. “We offer a hotel menu to meet the needs of the patients. It includes six different choices from meat to fish and dairy to vegetarian.”

Due to the large number of Jewish patients at the hospital, it has traditionally served a kosher meal, which also satisfies the Muslim population because of the two religions’ similar dietary needs, she said.

A recent influx of Indians and Russians into the hospital’s coverage area has prompted the LIJ to change some of its menu offerings to accommodate the newcomers, Oxford said.

“We are in the forefront of meeting the needs of our diverse patient population,” she said. She cited Hillside Hospital’s ethnic days for its patients, who usually have longer stays in the hospital. Oxford said there is a Mexican day, a Chinese day, a Greek day and a West Indian day when the menu reflects that region’s culture and heritage.

“We have a lot to learn, but this is a good beginning,” said Grable.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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