Spanish-speaking advisory council helps parents of UCLA Health patients feel heard

Through the UCLA Health parent advisory council for Spanish-speakers, Child Life Specialist Lisa Romero Gronroos helps improve communications between parents and doctors. (Photo by Nick Carranza)

Nubia Martinez was one of several parents going through the nerve-wracking experience of managing her child’s ill health, which necessitated a months-long stay at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.

For Martinez – who only speaks Spanish – that stress was compounded by having to manage her child’s care in an unfamiliar language.

She and Gloria Ferris, another parent of a patient, noted that Spanish-speaking families sometimes feel overwhelmed trying to communicate with health professionals not familiar with their language or cultural background.

“Parents in this position are trying to hide their fears while having to be very strong for their children,” Ferris says. “But we need to be supported too.”

Both mothers found that support through the parent advisory council for Spanish-speakers.  Originally introduced by the Patient Experience Office, this multi-disciplinary effort was taken on by Lisa Romero Gronroos, a Child Life Specialist in the Chase Child Life Program. The council seeks to improve relationships between physicians and parents by empowering parents to ask questions and share their experiences.

For the 2021 open enrollment period, new or prospective patient families should know that incorporating language and culture diversity and awareness are central to the care experience provided at UCLA Health.

“Having this group has given us an opportunity to express what we feel and want for our children,” Martinez says.

Three years ago, Romero Gronroos and Chase Child Life Program Director Kelli Carroll learned that there was an opportunity to improve communication for the Spanish-speaking parents during daily hospital rounds. Though interpreters were present to summarize what doctors said, several parents said they weren’t fully grasping the details and were unable to raise additional questions.

“These parents needed representation,” Romero Gronroos says. “They needed to feel comfortable speaking freely about their children’s care.”

During the first advisory council meeting, which brought Romero Gronroos, Carroll and doctors together with Spanish-speaking parents, they learned that by adding simultaneous interpretation to the bedside rounds, families would feel more supported.

“We’ve known the importance of access to language for so long,” said Carroll. “But we didn’t realize the impact real-time, synchronous translation would make.”

Romero Gronroos also points out that there is a difference between being culturally diverse and being culturally aware.

For example, some Hispanic and Latino families tend to view health care professionals as authority figures and may hesitate to ask numerous questions to avoid being perceived as disrespectful, according to a study published in 2002 in the journal Psychology, Health and Medicine. Additionally, cultural norms deem it important to solicit the opinions of all family members and provide ample time for decision making — which might be skipped over in health care settings.

Having perceived these communication differences due to her own background, Romero Gronroos felt passionate about finding a way to better the hospital experience for Spanish-speaking families.

“We have a culturally diverse staff [at UCLA Health],” she says, “but it’s important to be representative of and inclusive to other cultures.”

Now in its third year, the Spanish-speaking parent advisory council has begun conducting its quarterly meetings online during the pandemic. Carroll, Romero Gronroos and doctors meet with parents to discuss navigating health records, understanding hospital discharge instructions, introductions to health and wellness resources, and now, experiences with COVID-19.

“This group makes parents feel like they’re not alone,” Ferris says. “I feel part of a larger community.”

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