Diversity Heroes: where are they now?

08 August 2017

Last year, St Vincent’s Hospital won the Business Award at Victoria’s Multicultural Awards for Excellence for their innovative approach to caring for culturally diverse patients.

With nominations for the 2017 awards now open, we look back on the initiatives that earned St Vincent’s this prestigious accolade. 

Going to hospital can be a daunting experience for anyone, but it’s especially so if the people treating you don’t understand your language, culture or beliefs.

This is a key concern for staff at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where 47 per cent of patients come from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background, and one in five need an interpreter.

Monita Mascitti-Meuter, who coordinates the hospital’s cultural diversity program, said building cultural awareness and responsiveness in the workforce was key to improving patient care.

“Health care professionals at St Vincent’s are all trained in culturally sensitive ways to extend care,” she said.

“They recognise that culture, language and religion influence their interactions with patients as well as communication with other staff members, who are also incredibly culturally diverse.”

Mental health nurse Karen Thode said that in addition to general cultural awareness training, she was also able to request specialised training to meet the needs of specific patients.

“There’s also a broadcast every month that notifies us of significant religious or cultural events that we may need to be aware of, especially if it may affect health status,” said Ms Thode.

“For instance, it’s helpful to know when Muslims observe the fasting practices of Ramadan so we can monitor the adequacy of nutritional intake.”

With the latest annual figures indicating patients at St Vincent’s practiced 33 different faiths, pastoral care services must cater for a diverse range of spiritual needs.

Vietnamese interpreter Kim Luu Thi Nguyen said one case that sticks out in her memory is that of Anh Thi*, a terminally-ill, Vietnamese-speaking prisoner who was transferred to St Vincent’s in 2013.

“Anh Thi was the only female on the corrections ward and spoke very little English. She was culturally, physically and spiritually isolated,” said Ms Nguyen.

With Ms Nguyen translating, Anh Thi spoke with staff about the importance of her Buddhist faith, so they arranged for a Vietnamese Buddhist visitor to see her regularly.

“After the first visit, Anh Thi waved goodbye through the windows until the visitor left the unit – a clear expression of her gratitude to see someone from her own culture, language and spirituality.”

More visitors were arranged, including a Buddhist monk who provided spiritual support as Ahn Thi came closer to death.

The case is also indicative of the special role St Vincent’s interpreters play in patients’ lives, as Ms Nguyen notes, she has been “part of patients’ private conversations, and witness to their fears and tears.”

Monita Mascitti-Meuter said clinicians have a duty of care to use qualified health interpreters, particularly when discussing critical patient issues such as consent to treatment.

“Patients often show their gratitude to interpreters by bringing them food and sweets to share,” she said.

“One Vietnamese patient grows bananas in their Richmond backyard, and every time this patient comes to an appointment, they bring a box of bananas.”

Food is another aspect of the hospital experience which St Vincent’s has recently improved for culturally diverse patients.

In 2015 they introduced new meals to better reflect patient tastes, and made the menu pictorial and available in multiple languages.

The hospital is also providing free imaging and pathology services to asylum seekers who aren’t eligible for Medicare, through a partnership with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Boman Ali Wakilzada, an asylum seeker and St Vincent’s patient, was commissioned to create a painting to commemorate the launch of the initiative and was later invited to join St Vincent’s artist-in-residence program.

Ms Mascitti-Meuter said few health services in Australia were able to offer the same level of in-house support for culturally diverse patients.

She said winning a Multicultural Award for Excellence in 2016 validated the work that she and her colleagues undertake at St Vincent’s.

“It meant recognition of unique projects that have emerged as result of a great awareness and concern for the wellbeing of culturally and linguistically diverse patients.”

Nominations for the 2017 Multicultural Awards for Excellence close at midnight, Monday 21 August 2017.

Find out more about the Multicultural Business Award and submit a nomination at multicultural.vic.gov.au.

*not her real name

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