Karin W. SarrattBy Karin W. Sarratt – SPHR Vice President of Talent Management and Chief Diversity Officer, WellPoint, Inc.

Studies show that low-income Americans, ethnic minorities, and other underserved populations often have higher rates of disease, fewer treatment options, and less access to care.

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has the potential to provide greater access to care, reduce health-care disparities, and make health more affordable.

As the nation prepares to expand access to health care, diversity professionals have an opportunity to influence the conversation about how cultural values, beliefs, and traditions affect the way people approach health-care services, benefits, and decisions. I believe success in eliminating health disparities will depend on our ability to understand our customers, and communicate and serve in a culturally sensitive way.

Culture is a powerful imprint we all carry around. Different cultures view prevention, treatment, and the healing process very differently. Decisions about health care may be seen as very personal or they may involve the whole family; faith and nontraditional medicine may play important roles for some patients, while others rely almost exclusively on western medicine. An inclusive approach to health care requires not only an understanding of these cultural nuances, but also a willingness to treat them with respect and incorporate them into the solutions we offer patients and providers. Breaking down language barriers that may determine the kind of care people receive is also crucial.

To expand outreach, we need to leverage communication vehicles and venues that are vastly different from our traditional approaches. Resources and places seen as trusted sources for information become vital in reaching diverse and ethnic populations. For example, some groups are most comfortable accessing information at local parishes or community events hosted by local leaders. Finally, we need ensure that the health care industry workforce reflects the diverse backgrounds of the people who will be purchasing health benefits and accessing health care services.

Minorities are expected to make up the largest segment of the population signing up for health benefits under the ACA. For many, it will be the first time they have had an opportunity to purchase health insurance. Listening to the personal stories of our own associates is helping WellPoint fine-tune its strategy for delivering products and services that meet the diverse needs of our consumers. For example, we asked our Hispanic associate resource group, SOMOS, for feedback regarding the best ways to communicate with Hispanics about the changes the ACA will bring and how WellPoint can improve the their overall enrollment experience.

As SOMOS members have related their personal and family experiences about accessing health care services, we have learned just what can happen when the health-care delivery system doesn’t address cultural and language barriers. Something as simple as not being able to answer a patient’s questions about his or her health in Spanish, or lacking in-language educational materials, can result in health-care disparities.

Armed with these stories, WellPoint has enhanced its services to better meet the needs of Hispanic consumers. From grassroots efforts to partnering with trusted sources in the Hispanic community, our approach puts culturally sensitive solutions at the center of our efforts. The better we understand the diverse needs of our consumers, the better equipped we will be to offer trusted and caring solutions that will transform health care.