New website aids healthcare services search for non-English speakers

Alameda County supervisor Wilma Chan speaks at a press event for ACHealthCare.org, the first searchable free and low-cost health services database of its kind in the country.

Alameda County supervisor Wilma Chan speaks at a press event for ACHealthCare.org, the first searchable free and low-cost health services database of its kind in the country.

When Joyce Wan moved to the Bay Area 15 years ago, finding basic healthcare services in her native Cantonese seemed nearly impossible. “My friends and relatives told me to go see doctors,” the 45-year-old Hong Kong native said. “But unfortunately because my English was not so good, I had a hard time communicating.”

Wan eventually found her way to Asian Health Services, a community clinic in Oakland’s Chinatown, but said she wished the search for affordable, accessible care from a doctor who could speak her language had been simpler.

Alameda County health executives and government officials hope the launch of a new website that will help residents like Wan and those who are underinsured or uninsured connect with medical resources faster and more easily. ACHealthCare.org, which officially launched last week, is the nation’s first website of its kind; it compiles free and low-cost local health resources into a searchable database. The listed services are available in a variety of locations throughout Alameda County, as well as in an array of languages. The website itself is available in English, Spanish and Cantonese.

The site was developed by members of the Alameda County Access to Care Collaborative, a group of health care organization leaders that serve low-income and uninsured residents. “I’d say the thing we were really looking for was consolidation and standardization of information,” said Beth Newell, a project analyst at the Alameda Health Consortium, which helped develop the site. “I think if people were looking for services, it wasn’t always clear where to look. We wanted everything in one place and [to] have this be a trusted source of information for people.”

According to the US Census Bureau, 199,000 Alameda County residents, or 13.3 percent, were uninsured in 2010 and 36 percent of those without insurance have limited English proficiency.

“We have close to 200,000 in Alameda County who don’t have health insurance, and one barrier to that is not being able to find it,” said Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, chair of the Board of Supervisors’ health committee, which reviewed the site and offered feedback and support to its developers. She points out that the new site also contains information about how to apply for health insurance. “It’s a great tool,” she said.

The idea for the site took shape in 2009 when members of the collaborative were working on a report regarding uninsured residents and gaps in healthcare services. “We were trying to look not just at community clinics and medical centers, but also at a number of the smaller clinics that are only open one or two days a week that serve people without health insurance,” Newell said. “One of the things we found was that there just wasn’t a list anywhere. So we spent a lot of time gathering and tracking down some of those health providers.”

The collaborative, funded through private health foundation The California Endowment, used a portion of its finances to create the site. “It was really a bare bones project that didn’t really have a budget—we were piecing together different grants and staff time,” Newell said.

After working closely with programmers and receiving a grant from translation agency Via Language, Newell and her colleagues began compiling information from county clinics last December. The site was then presented to the Board of Supervisors’ health committee in May.

“Supervisor Chan and Supervisor [Keith] Carson are both on the health committee and were very supportive of it and liked the idea,” Newell said. The site has been available since the spring, but because of scheduling conflicts, the official press event was not held until last week at Oakland’s Frank Kiang Medical Center.

“We’ve had a lot of traffic in the last week, about 1,000 hits a day, which has been great,” Newell said. “We were doing about 300 before the press event.”

Jennifer Lee, deputy director of operations at Asian Health Services, where Cantonese-speaking patient Joyce Wan ended up, said she and her colleagues are still testing the site, but hope to recommend it for patient use soon.

Some of her colleagues, however, foresee obstacles in promoting the site to clients. “I like how everything is in one place and set up for all different kinds of health insurance,” said Nhi Tran, a case manager at Asian Health Services. “But I don’t know how accessible it will be. It’s great for folks with access to the Internet, but a lot of our patients don’t have computers, much less Internet. Also, I know there are different languages [available on the site], but we have a very diverse patient population and some don’t speak Chinese.”

Tran believes providing computers in public areas that can be exclusively used to navigate the site might allow more users to access the benefits of the database. “I think it could also maybe be more useful if this was accessible at libraries or in public places, community centers—places that folks usually go to and might be able to have access to care,” Tran said.

Wan agrees that some county residents may not find the website to be a useable resource. “The worst case is elderly people who don’t know how to use the computer or to go to the website,” she said. Wan said community classes on Internet use might help more residents access the site.

According to Newell, the site will continue to evolve and eventually be managed and maintained by the county’s Public Health Clearinghouse, which also operates a toll-free information and referral line. “They get about 7,000 calls a year and they direct people to health services,” Newell said. “This is going to be a way to branch out to do more of that.”

Newell said one of the main goals of the site developers is to collaborate with city governments and school districts in Alameda County. “We’re looking to work with different organizations and cities and school districts to get it linked on their homepages or on different sections on their sites,” she said.

Though Wan found a doctor for herself without the aid of the site, she said she will use it to find care for her 8-year-old daughter. “It’s very easy to use because I didn’t need to type any information, just my zip code,” she said. “It will be easier now and better than the phone book or asking friends and relatives to help, because you can do it by yourself.”

 

 

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