Explaining Health Care to Turkish Immigrants

Dr. Hasan Imanli discusses health care access for low-income families on April 29 in Baltimore.
(Photo courtesy of the Whitetulip Health Foundation)

The Whitetulip Health Foundation (WHF) is a nonprofit organization that connects health care professionals working in the U.S. who want to give back to society, and is open to whoever may be in need and requests help.

Based in Totowa, New Jersey, the foundation has more than 20 chapters across the country providing an outlet for health care professionals to share ideas and experiences. Through their networking and development of explanatory materials, WHF’s leaders and volunteers help to promote an understanding of the incredibly complex health care system in the U.S.

[In Turkey, all health care and related social welfare activities are coordinated by the Ministry of Health. Turkey has a Universal Health Insurance (Genel Sağlık Sigortası) system under which all residents registered with the Social Security Institution (SGK) can receive medical treatment at an affordable price in hospitals contracted to the SGK. The system, relatively easy to navigate, is heavily subsidized by the government.]

It’s estimated that over the past couple of years, more than a thousand families of Turkish nationals have migrated to the U.S. because of political problems at home. Like most immigrants, they have little knowledge of how the health care system here functions. Thanks to WHF, which was founded in Boston in 2014, a variety of programs and materials offer medical information and assistance to recent arrivals from Turkey.

In addition, WHF offers an important network for doctors and other health care professionals to help them to integrate into the U.S. health system and practice here. WHF’s work is conducted mainly by volunteers who come from a variety of communities to help these immigrants.

WHF establishes programs, seminars, lecture series, counseling and panel discussions for immigrants who do not receive fundamental health care support, and do not know where to go when they have a medical problem.

WHF President Servet Tatli, a radiologist practicing in Pennsylvania who came to the U.S. from Turkey in 1997, said that “culture shock plays an important role in creating these problems. These people really worry about these issues and sometimes spend their limited financial sources for a medical examination, lab, or treatment.” They learn, with the help of WHF, that some of these services they can get for free, and others at much lower cost.

Usually it is the patients who have language difficulties and lack both medical knowledge and financial resources who receive help from the foundation.

Dr. Tatli stated: “They typically do not know the health care system and sources available in the U.S. Some may be eligible for Medicare or Medicaid and others might be able to afford private health insurance. For those with limited financial sources, charity care at various hospitals and governmental and non-governmental free clinics are available in many locations.”

The WHF president said that after a recent influx of immigrants from Turkey, Whitetulip health professionals and volunteers who speak Turkish were not only bombarded with many health care-related questions, but also had to address health care problems suffered by these immigrants. They recognized immigrants’ intense need for medical help.

He explained how the foundation helped Turkish immigrants: “Our members and volunteers helped many people in need personally by examining them and prescribing medicine when necessary, and in doing so, they realized that these people’s medical needs extended far beyond just getting a medical exam and a prescription. We decided to discover the resources out there that were available and introduce them to the people in need in their own language.”

Meeting mental health needs too

So the organization prepared a document in Turkish to explain the health system in the U.S., and describe ways of getting medical care, lab tests and medicine; each Whitetulip branch made a search and put together a list of available local sources for free or low-cost medical care. Documents on the website describe, in Turkish and English, health care services available not only in New York and New Jersey, but also in Ohio,  Indiana and Kentucky and other locations.

The volunteers of the organization also gave seminars and educated many immigrants in this respect – one by one helping them to apply to appropriate institutions, depending on their location and budget, to get the medical care they needed.

WHF’s Tatli continued, “In fact, after dealing with the medical problems of these people, we soon realized that they often also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, and needed mental health support.”

They responded by organizing educational activities and individual counseling programs for those in need. WHF is launching a broader-scale mental health screening and counseling program throughout the U.S.  Through its branches, WHF health professionals will identify and instruct the people who are looking for guidance.

Luckily, most people reach WHF after listening to a presentation or hearing about it from their friends and family members. They contact the foundation through an email or a phone call.

Dr. Tatli gave an example of how the group has helped patients. “One day an elderly lady who moved to the U.S. recently reached out to one of our volunteer doctors to get help with her asthma medication and asked him to write a refill for her medication. After a brief examination, the doctor called the pharmacy with a prescription. However, she called back a few days later and explained that she could not buy the medication because it was too expensive, more than $500. With the help of our volunteers, she checked several other options and coupons to buy the medicine cheaper without any luck. Then our volunteer referred her to one of the hospitals close by, which gives charity care for eligible residents. There she was examined thoroughly by the doctors who provided the appropriate medicine for just $15. She was so happy and has started to go to that hospital whenever she needs any medical care.”

Cemre Ulker is another example of a person who received help for a health condition. Ulker slipped on black ice while walking in New York City and got a segmented fracture in her right ankle. Her colleagues took her to the emergency room and she had her right leg put into a cast. The doctor told her that she had to have surgery to fully recover. She decided to have it in Turkey, her home country, as she did not have insurance in the U.S. After she had surgery for the bimalleolar ankle fracture, she rested for almost three months, then had to return to New York as her sick leave was over.

Ulker, who is working as a director at an international civil society organization, said that “Even though I had physical therapy for a long time, my ankle started to give me pain again. By that time the limited time coverage that I received from Bellevue Hospital was already over.”

Ulker explained how she met with Whitetulip: “Through my friends in New York, I learned about the Whitetulip Health Foundation. When I first called them and explained my situation, they put me in touch with one of the volunteer doctors in their network for a free consultation session. After the doctor examined my ankle, he told me that I need to restart physical therapy. However, I did not have any health coverage; and therapy sessions are quite expensive in New York City. So I contacted Whitetulip Foundation again and they sent me a list of hospitals that I can visit free of charge. Thanks to their help, I was able to find a place to continue my therapy at a very low cost.”

She continued: “As we all know, gaining access to health care services is complicated in this country, even for American citizens. So, as an immigrant working on a temporary visa, the choices that you have for health services are even more limited. Most of the time, the insurance coverage that meets your needs exceeds your budget. As Whitetulip Foundation has volunteer doctors in its network who are dedicated to helping people in medical need, even a phone consultation may be enough to answer some of your simple questions.”

Orhan Akkurt reports for Zaman Amerika. His article was written as part of the 2018 Health Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and funded by a grant from News Corp.

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