Healthcare Equity for Senior Asian Americans: A Cultural Perspective 

Updated on June 17, 2024

In recent times, there’s been a growing recognition within the medical field of the importance of cultural sensitivity in healthcare. Despite this progress, there’s still a considerable gap in the level of care provided, particularly for senior patients within the Asian American community. Older individuals in these communities often encounter numerous obstacles in accessing necessary medical treatment. Addressing their unique needs effectively requires the healthcare system to embrace practices that are sensitive to their cultural backgrounds. 

The Asian American demographic is marked by stark health disparities. They are more susceptible to conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers compared to other groups. Compounding this issue is a tendency for underdiagnosis and delayed treatment, patterns reminiscent of those seen in other immigrant communities. This reluctance to seek medical help until symptoms become severe, along with socioeconomic hurdles, can significantly impact the progression of certain conditions and result in a diminished quality of life. 

Asian Americans, as a broad group, are set to become the largest immigrant group by the middle of the 21st century. It is estimated that by 2060, approximately 45 million Asian Americans will reside in the U.S. This number highlights the pivotal role and contribution of this community — both now and in the future. However, many older Asian Americans currently face significant challenges in accessing and affording healthcare. 

Unique Healthcare Challenges Affecting Asian American Seniors 

One of the most significant challenges for senior Asian Americans is language proficiency. Over half of Chinese Americans aged 65 and older have limited English fluency. This barrier can hinder them in various ways, such as being unable to accurately describe symptoms, comprehend medical terminology, or adhere to a physician’s treatment recommendations. 

Another barrier to healthcare for Asian Americans is their reluctance to seek help from Western medicine. Many Asian Americans tend to favor Eastern or holistic remedies, which can conflict with a doctor’s recommendations or lead them to avoid seeking medical help altogether. Additionally, there is often a hesitancy to discuss certain healthcare topics, especially those concerning mental health, sexual health, or other sensitive issues. As a result, Asian American seniors may withhold information due to embarrassment or fear of stigma. 

Family dynamics play a crucial role in the healthcare of older Asian Americans. Asian families are often very close-knit, and their dynamics may involve collective medical decision-making, which can be challenging for healthcare teams unfamiliar with this cultural aspect. 

Economic factors also significantly impact the healthcare choices of Asian American seniors. Not all have health insurance, and some may have concerns about their immigration status. As a result, Asian Americans might opt to avoid medical care, potentially jeopardizing their health and, in some cases, their lives. 

The good news is that cultural competence in elderly carehas the potential to tackle these issues and more. The initial step for the medical community should be to invest time in comprehending the unique needs and perspectives of the Asian American senior community. This understanding is a foundational element of cultural competence in elderly care. 

Strategies to Promote Cultural Sensitivity in Healthcare for Aging Asian Americans 

While enhancing understanding of the unique medical needs of Asian Americans and providing education in their preferred languages is a good beginning, it’s insufficient for fully improving the cultural sensitivity in healthcare. Comprehensive changes are needed, not only in medically related policies but also in practices, to achieve this goal. The following are ways to build cultural sensitivity in healthcare: 

Training: Healthcare professionals should undergo regular cultural competency training focused on Asian Americans. Cultural competency training helps healthcare employees gain deeper knowledge of Asian Americans’ relationship with medicine and care. 

Outreach efforts: These could be in the form of community events or other initiatives that allow Asian Americans to engage with healthcare professionals. Additionally, encouraging more Asian Americans to pursue careers in healthcare could be beneficial. Older Asian Americans might feel more at ease receiving care from someone who shares their cultural heritage. 

Insurance coverage: Insurance providers can also play a role by broadening their medical insurance coverage and introducing financial assistance programs tailored to Asian American elders. Furthermore, information about these programs should be made accessible through translated documents and other materials, ensuring better understanding and accessibility for this demographic. 

The expansion of language assistance services: Many healthcare entities have begun to offer on-demand interpretation services via telephone or video. Asian Americans, given this option, can more adeptly explain what they’re feeling, as well as ask questions. 

The integration of traditional Asian American health practices with Western medicine: Rather than working at cross-purposes, doctors and teams may want to find ways to incorporate Eastern practices and beliefs with Western ones when appropriate. Eastern medicine balances five elements: earth, fire, water, metal, and wood, while Western medicine utilizes advanced technologies such as imaging, genetics, and pharmaceuticals to understand and treat the human body. Both approaches offer valuable insights and methods for promoting health and well-being and the integration allows Asian Americans to personalize their care while still obtaining access to technological advancements when preferred. 

The collection of Asian-American-specific data: The more data that can be researched about the Asian American elderly population, the simpler it will be for medical professionals to make informed, predictive recommendations. 

Recently, an Asian American member of our organization expressed heartfelt thanks for making healthcare information available in Korean. This member’s deep appreciation highlighted the profound impact of culturally competent healthcare. Now is an ideal moment for all healthcare stakeholders to unite and champion true patient inclusivity.  

Hiep Pham
Hiep Pham
Chief Financial Officer at Clever Care Health Plan

Hiep Pham is the Chief Financial Officer and one of the founders of Clever Care Health Plan. Hiep has extensive experience in healthcare finance spanning over 14 years, with a heavy focus on financial oversight, regulatory compliance and audits, and risk management.