Hear candid conversations between people conquering cancer – patients, their family and friends, and doctors and researchers working to help us all.
Before Dr. Jenny Ruiz became a pediatric oncologist, her first experience with kids and cancer came when a younger cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. Dr. Ruiz became a translator for her family, most of whom speak Spanish as a first language; her cousin’s doctor spoke English. This experience showed her how life-threatening language barriers can be when patients and families with limited English proficiency must navigate cancer care.
Now, the three-time Conquer Cancer grant and award recipient explores how language barriers impact survival rates in children with cancer. She tells Dr. Don Dizon why she works with young patients and how language-based research is vital to better care for all patients.
WHAT YOU'LL HEAR IN THIS EPISODE:
• The risks facing patients with limited English proficiency
• How patients are helped when language gaps are bridged
• Why multilingual representation in clinical research matters
• The challenges Latinas and women of color endure to provide equitable care to their patients
"I could see how language, and language barriers, could easily affect care and understanding and communication. I sometimes saw my [older] cousin act as an interpreter, which is not an ideal way for a family to communicate with their doctor,” says Dr. Ruiz. “At the same time, I would also see some physicians who did speak Spanish and were able to communicate medical information to my cousin’s family. I saw both sides.”
Dr. Ruiz focuses her research on the social determinants of health (SDOH) to help address language barriers. SDOH are the social, economic, and physical circumstances in which people are born, live, and work, including multiple factors that have a direct impact on health outcomes. Dr. Ruiz’s work is twofold: in addition to exploring language barriers, she also studies how SDOHs, like the linguistic abilities of patients, can influence the implicit biases of monolingual English-speaking providers.
She says the SDOH play a huge role in affecting the health outcomes of patients who have been historically marginalized.
“Oftentimes, health care providers come from different backgrounds and experiences, and may not be as attuned to these problems,” says Dr. Ruiz. “It’s important for more research in this area to prioritize these populations.”
Beyond seeing her little cousin experience leukemia, Dr. Ruiz’s interest in treating kids with cancer is driven by her desire to help ensure all young patients have an equitable chance to grow up healthy.
“I truly believe that as we’re treating more kids with cancer, their diagnosis should not limit their potential as adults and how they live their future lives,” says Dr. Ruiz. “We know there are disparities and inequities in access and outcomes in pediatric oncology, and that really drives me to find solutions to those problems.”
Language-Affirming Research & Care
Drawing on her research and personal experiences, Dr. Ruiz encourages health care centers with limited translation resources to prioritize investing in interpretive services and heightening access to multilingual communication options. Such measures can be lifesaving for patients and affirming for families whose English proficiency is limited.
“I think ideally, it should be a trained, certified interpreter acting as that liaison between the family and doctors and medical team. But not all hospital centers have those resources,” says Dr. Ruiz. “Sometimes, it unfortunately does fall on family members. I think that’s something the health care system can work on improving."
She also advocates for clinical trials, which have been especially pivotal for marking milestones in childhood cancer, to elevate representation of both patients and researchers who speak languages other than English.
“A lot of the advances we’ve made in pediatric cancer have been because of cooperative clinical trials,” says Dr. Ruiz. “I hope this type of research will improve participation in clinical trials.”
Helping her Spanish-speaking family communicate with their oncologist inspired Dr. Jenny’s Ruiz’s work in cancer care. This three-time Conquer Cancer grant and award recipient shares how her language-based research aims to improve survival rates for pediatric patients.