A Lesson in Communication

In the Philadelphia Health Corps I am a Prescription Assistance Program Advocate with the Philadelphia Public Health Department. I have learned a lot about the various challenges and joys of working in public health, along with a new found knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance, and the many chronic diseases plaguing communities. While I am gaining and building upon many important skills during my year with the Philadelphia Health Corps, the greatest of these has been my communication skills. Poor communication discourages our patients from coming back, while good communication can mean simply asking the right questions to better understand what a particular patient needs. In my role it is as much about listening, as it is about relaying vital information to our patients.

Communication has been at the root of some of my most frustrating and rewarding experiences.  Like many of the public health centers, ours has a large immigrant population. While interpreters are often on hand to assist us, there are times when someone is out for the day, and we’re having trouble getting through on InterpreTalk. One such day was during my first month in AmeriCorps. A patient who speaks little to no English arrived to pick up their medication, but when I signaled that we needed identification, he emptied his pockets showing me he had nothing on him. I paged the interpreter and found out she was away. I tried to explain that he would have to come back when an interpreter was available, or if he would come into our office we could talk via InterpreTalk, but he was angry, began yelling, and stormed out. I felt terrible turning away a patient, and worse, because I wasn’t sure he understood why he couldn’t receive his medication.

While failures in communication can be hard to navigate, a success with a patient can be extremely gratifying. We have one patient for whom there is no interpreter, and he cannot read English letters or characters. For months, he would show up on random days to see if his medication had arrived or if he needed to sign paperwork for his medication.  Finally, one day he decided to show me how to write his medication in his own language so that we could send him letters when it was time to come in. I can often hear him coming around the corner, shouting the name of his medication. When he leaves, a string of “thank yous” follows him out the door.

I am grateful for the opportunity that I have this year serving as a Philadelphia Health Corps member. I would like to pursue a career in medicine, and I’m sure my experiences here will make me a better health care professional.

-Maryalice Wolfe, Philadelphia Department of Public Health

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