The Covid-19 pandemic helped Dhuaa Khan, 17, understand the problems Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities face when they seek medical help.
The Pakistani teenager acted as the interpreter when she accompanied her elderly aunt to be vaccinated, as everything was explained in English.
Her aunt appeared confused and anxious whenever medical staff asked her questions, and Khan did her best translating the queries and procedures into Urdu.
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“I couldn’t help wondering how the appointment would have gone if she was alone,” said Khan, who had noticed others who struggled through the pandemic because they could not speak or read Chinese and English.
They did not understand the changes that came in quick succession, about social-distancing restrictions, coronavirus testing and vaccinations, and where to seek medical help.
It made the Form Six graduate, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, more determined to pursue her ambition of becoming a nurse.
“I want to provide something local doctors cannot offer patients, my language,” said Khan, who speaks Urdu and Punjabi as well as English.
To improve her chances of getting into a nursing programme, she joined a health career scheme aimed at encouraging young people from ethnic minority groups to become health care workers.
Launched last year, the scheme run by NGO Health in Action (HIA) equips participants with health-related knowledge during a 40-hour training course conducted free of charge.
About 12 to 15 youths aged between 15 and 29 are selected for each round, with applicants interviewed on their motivation, as well as their study and career goals.
Participants are taught basic theories in health and pharmaceutical sciences, as well as nutrition and mental health. There are also one-on-one consultations on career possibilities.
HIA founder Dr Fan Ning said he hoped the programme would empower more ethnic minority youths to become health ambassadors who can provide useful information to members of their community.
“Health information really needs to be disseminated to members of the different ethnic groups in Hong Kong,” he said.
Amid an overall lack of health care workers, Hong Kong is especially short on staff in this sector who can communicate with patients who do not speak Chinese or English.
As of 2016, the city had more than 580,000 people from ethnic minorities, or 8 per cent of the total population.
As a surgeon in a public hospital, Fan said he had treated patients from ethnic minority groups and he depended on interpreters to explain medical terms to them.
“There are some challenges because in hospitals, it can be hard to find and make appointments with interpreters,” he said. “Some nurses also don’t understand the importance of medical interpreters, thinking it’s enough to communicate with family members. But often the family members are not familiar with medical terms themselves.”
He set up HIA in 2011 to serve needy families and ethnic minority communities, believing health care is a fundamental right for all.
Around 30 participants have benefited through three rounds of the health career scheme so far.
Chinese Filipino Wendy Dichoso Zhuang, 21, a second-year medical science student at Tung Wah College, signed up to get more hands-on experience.
Born and raised in the Philippines, she came to Hong Kong with her family five years ago to pursue her studies and hopes to become a general practitioner.
She and Khan have taken part in an internship programme organised by the HIA, where they helped to provide check-ups and advice to ethnic minority residents at Tin Shui Wai.
While both are keen to reach out to ethnic minority residents, they also recognise that there is a language barrier they must overcome themselves – Cantonese.
Khan, the daughter of a clothes shop owner and housewife, worries that her weak Cantonese skills might get in the way of her getting into a nursing programme.
Zhuang, who describes her Cantonese proficiency as “elementary”, said: “The language barrier is a huge hurdle for us non-Chinese speaking students.”
She hopes to take up Cantonese language courses to help her work in Hong Kong after she completes her studies.
“I prefer to stay in Hong Kong as it has one of Asia’s best health care systems,” she said.
This article Hong Kong NGO trains young people to help ethnic minority groups navigate health care maze first appeared on South China Morning Post