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Language main concern in boro health disparities

Borough President Helen Marshall and others heard representatives from agencies, hospitals and organizations testify about the health disparities that exist in Queens and how to overcome them at a public hearing at Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica April 21.

Language and cultural problems, improving overall health education and lack of health coverage topped the list of concerns.

“We are a borough of great diversity,” Marshall said. “We want to know how to better identify and eliminate health disparities in Queens.”

The meeting was held as part of a citywide initiative by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and her Commission to Close the Health Divide. The commission is holding meetings in each borough to chart disparities and solicit possible solutions, Fields said.

“The health divide is an all-too-pervasive condition in communities of color not only in the city but across the country,” she said. “People of color are more likely to die of preventable, treatable conditions regardless of economic status or health coverage.”

In Queens, cancer presents a particular problem, said Dr. Margaret Kemeny, director of the Cancer Center of Excellence at Queens Hospital Center. Queens women are three to four times as likely than their counterparts elsewhere in the country to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, and the borough’s men are twice as likely to have late-stage prostate cancer by the time they consult a doctor, she said.

But before borough residents will see a doctor, they must be able to understand the physician. About 46 percent of Queens residents are foreign born and more than 150 languages are spoken in the borough, Marshall said.

“Language barriers create fear among the populations we serve,” said Antonio Martin, executive director of Queens Hospital Center. “We are using every available tool to overcome those barriers.”

The public hospital, which is managed by the Health and Hospitals Corp. along with Elmhurst Hospital Center, has multilingual personnel available at all hours, including a sign-language interpreter, Martin said. It also has cultural competency standards in place to accommodate a wide range of ethnic concerns, he said.

The American Cancer Society is fighting language barriers as well as information problems, and the Queens chapter was slated to launch a national pilot program to promote health information, said David Golub, regional vice president for the organization. The program, billed as the most extensive health literacy program in the country, will offer free 24-hour information in as many languages as possible, he said.

“We’re building a community of solutions,” he said. “We know how to save lives, but we have to get the research from the bench to the trench.”

The American Cancer Society is also working with the Queens Borough Public Library on the “Ask Me” campaign to provide reference materials, said Maureen O’Connor, of the library.

“People come to the library for information, and people are coming to the library for information on health care,” she said. “Libraries are a natural access point for health education and literacy.”

But once patients get the information, they still need to pay for it, and thousands of people in Queens still do not have health insurance. Unfortunately, solutions for this problem are not so easy, said Joan Serrano Laufer, executive director of the Queensboro Council for Social Welfare.

“The most difficult call that I get is from someone who has lost their job, owns their home but needs medical coverage.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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