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Understanding Cultural Diversity And Confronting COVID-19: UPMC

posted by AHIP

on July 21, 2021

Dr. Johanna Vidal-Phelan, Senior Medical Services Director of Quality and Pediatrics at UPMC Health Plan, joined us on the latest episode of The Next Big Thing in Health podcast. We explored UPMC’s work to deliver accurate and up-to-date COVID-19 information to Spanish-speaking plan members.

Listen to the full interview on Apple, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Stitcher


Matt Eyles: COVID-19 has affected so many communities across the U.S. in unique ways. Can you discuss the pandemic’s impact on the Latino community?

Dr. Vidal-Phelan: The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the Latino community. While the Latino community represents 18% of the population, Latinos represent 29% of the COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to recent data from the CDC. Latinos have experienced higher rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations, rates of infections, and death. Prior to the pandemic, the Latino community had already experienced inequities in income, access to health care, food insecurity, and poverty. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges.

Many Latino families live in multigenerational, overcrowded households with limited capacity for social distancing. Members of our communities experience limited access to COVID-19 testing, and now to COVID-19 vaccines. Because Latinos are disproportionately represented members of the essential workforce in the U.S., they have had an increased exposure to the virus. While other groups are now returning to the workplace, the Latino unemployment rate is still far above its pre-pandemic levels.


Laura Evans: Understanding those impacts, can you elaborate on your work at UPMC to ensure Spanish-speaking members have access to accurate COVID-19 information?

Dr. Vidal-Phelan: In the era of misinformation, it is very important that our members have access to accurate COVID-19 information. Since the beginning of the pandemic, UPMC has been engaged with our Spanish-speaking membership. As part of a collaboration with a local TV station, we started coordinating COVID-related Q&A sessions in Spanish to inform the Spanish-speaking community of the latest COVID-19 information and developments. Our extended member services team has members who are fluent in Spanish and other languages and have been engaged with our communities. These bilingual concierges are a regular presence both at clinics focused on vulnerable populations and at many of the larger clinics UPMC has organized.

Recently, our bilingual team worked with a local nonprofit organization to bring COVID-19 vaccinations directly to the Spanish-speaking community. I serve as a COVID-19 vaccinator and I will never forget how grateful the community was to have us bring the vaccine to their neighborhood.


Matt Eyles: How important is it for health plans to approach their members’ needs in culturally appropriate ways? What steps should UPMC and other health plans be taking to do so? 

Dr. Vidal-Phelan: It is critical for health plans to become engaged and remain a critical partner in their communities. I believe UPMC has been setting a great example and will continue to lead in this area. UPMC has administered over 600,000 vaccines and UPMC Health Plan has had 45 vaccination clinics focused on underserved populations, including the Latino community. This outreach was successful because we partnered with trusted community organizations such as Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh to reach even the most vaccine hesitant segments of our population. We also provided clinics focused on key workforce sectors like restaurants that have employees from medically vulnerable communities and make sure that clinic hours accommodate their work schedules.

With 90,000 employees, UPMC has also worked to make our clinical leaders informed advocates. Our “My UPMC Program” features a diverse range of employees sharing why they choose to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. We are also looking at additional strategies to get factual information out about the COVID-19 vaccines to Black and Latino communities. UPMC is also a part of AHIP’s Vaccine Community Connectors Program, which has provided a great collaborative opportunity to vaccine vulnerable individuals.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.