Language barriers and the fear of running into trouble because they lack proper documentation are among the many reasons that some immigrants avoid the health care system.
Now hospitals seeking to connect with these hard-to-reach populations are turning to a trusted institution: the church.
In Virginia, for example, the Hispanic population is one of the fastest growing, yet a third of Hispanic women don't receive any prenatal health care during their first trimester of pregnancy, says Dr. Maria Schaart, program manager for the Congregational Health Partnership at Inova Health System. For white American women, the figure is just 12 percent.
To help address the disparity, Inova is training 30 volunteers at five local churches to reach out to women in their congregations and refer them to health services early in their pregnancy, answering questions about documentation requirements and where to go if they don't have insurance, among other things. The volunteers are often on hand during church services.
By the end of the three-year grant supporting this effort, which was provided by CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, Inova hopes to have helped up to 250 Hispanic women learn healthier pregnancy behaviors, including understanding the importance of folic acid supplements to prevent birth defects and the effects of tobacco and alcohol during pregnancy.
For over a decade, Inova has worked with hundreds of Virginia churches to promote health and wellness. Churches typically identify a health ministry coordinator to work with Inova to assess what the congregation needs and implement a plan to achieve it, whether it's a health fair where church members can get free blood pressure and cholesterol screenings or support groups for chronic conditions, says Schaart.
No one knows how many health systems have partnerships with churches. But the Department of Health and Human Services thinks the approach has promise. Last month, the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an HHS agency, invited 18 health systems, including Inova, to a one-day event to share information. "The basic principles are ones that any hospital can undertake," says Mara Vanderslice Kelly, acting director of the center.