Teaching Health-Care Rights to Empower Patients

Health-care march. Photo by Neil Parekh/SEIU Healthcare 775NW; courtesy Creative CommonsBy Nur Afsar I worried that even 25 seats would be too many. But as people flooded through the doors, I saw that my worry was unwarranted: We quickly put out more chairs for what was to be an amazing learning experience.

Last week on May 2, my Partners for Change colleagues—Salma Asous, Syed Haider, Jamiela McDonnough—and I led a health-care rights workshop for parents of children enrolled in programs at the New Apartment Settlements' College Access Center in the Bronx. In the presentation titled “Know Your Rights,” we outlined patients’ rights to language access, financial assistance, emergency treatment, and accommodations for disabilities within the health-care system. Many of the parents were Spanish-speaking, so we brought a translator with us. After going over basics, we gave out colored cards corresponding to true and false and quizzed our audience, who answered most questions correctly. I could see my feelings of joy and pride mirrored on my fellow facilitators’ faces: We were making ourselves understood!

I had become interested in becoming a Partners for Change fellow because I was eager to take action. I had taken many courses that addressed how health disparities are linked to socioeconomic status. I was aware of the injustice of low-income minority populations being more likely to have poor health outcomes: They are less likely to be insured and subsequently less likely to have access to a primary-care physician. I couldn’t just sit with this information. What I needed was a plan, a way to help overcome the vast disparities in New York City and make a positive impact. This is exactly what I was able to begin doing through the Partners for Change fellowship.

Nur Asfarco-leads a health-care rights workshop. Photo by Sophie GrayTackling the System In this past year, I’ve learned a lot through my experience working as a Health Leads Advocate at New York Presbyterian’s Washington Heights Family Health Center and in seminars led by Shena Elrington, health justice attorney at New York Lawyers for Public Interest and our leader in residence. We learned about the ins and outs of our health-care system and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will bring about changes. In discussions we faced the harsh realities of the system, but Shena never let us leave our seminars without us feeling that students like we are can bring about change.

As a medical student, I was learning all the things I had to know to be a health-care provider, but in our Partners for Change seminars, we were learning about policy. We gained a lot of knowledge (more than I expected!), but what is it really worth if the information can’t be shared with those who really need it?

Stressing Advocacy After the session, there was a time for Q&A, and with Shena’s help, we were able to answer many of the parents’ questions and address their concerns. Some said they had been denied an interpreter when seeking care for their children or themselves. Others said they didn’t know where to go for financial assistance. As I expected, there were some questions about insurance. One person asked, “Why is there an income cut-off? I work hard to make money, why shouldn’t I receive Medicaid.” We explained the federal poverty level and discussed the Medicaid expansion to come through the ACA. Additionally, we addressed other options for people ineligible for Medicaid—undocumented immigrants, for example.

As an aspiring physician, I feel further equipped by my fellowship experience to inform patients of their options and help them maneuver through the changing system so they can take control of their own health. Informing parents of their rights—and steps they can take if their rights are violated—is a major form of patient activation. We stressed that they didn’t need lawyers. They can advocate for themselves, and I feel we went a long way to empower them with the knowledge and tools to do so.

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