Adriana Suarez-Ligon, a surgical oncologist with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), believes that having a doctor who can speak a patient’s language could fix many of the country’s health care disparities.

“I have seen firsthand the impediment language barriers cause in daily life, but especially in medicine,” says Suarez-Ligon, who speaks English and Spanish. “I’m proud to communicate with people in their language of choice, which is Spanish for around 40 percent of my patients.”

Suarez-Ligon wants to shed light on the need to improve access to screenings and treatment for Latinx patients. About 10 percent of adults in the United States have limited fluency in English, leading to a myriad of health-related challenges, including skipped medications and negative clinical experiences. And while professional interpreters help, Suarez-Ligon says, nothing beats having a doctor who speaks your language.

“I’m the bilingual daughter of immigrants,” says Suarez-Ligon whose parents left Cuba as children and eventually settled in Bergen County. “My first language was Spanish, because I grew up around my grandparents. Being Cuban-American is a big part of my identity: Cuban food, Cuban music, Cuban everything.”

The NJMS trained physician is gathering data on the disparities Latinx women face when accessing preventative care and treatments. This demographic — along with black women — fail to receive therapy for curable breast cancers more often than Caucasians, and the problem gets more severe as patients age, she says.

So far, three years of data have been collected at NJMS. Suarez-Ligon says that she thinks that two more years of data will provide researchers with enough information to see how disparities in care have been impacting the high proportion of Latinx patients being treated.

“We’re collecting as much information as we can on minorities, so we can do something significant  for these patients,” she says.

In the meantime, Suarez-Ligon has also observed stumbling blocks such as language, reliance on folk remedies, a reluctance to seek medical treatment because of falsely held beliefs, and inadequate access to health insurance.

“Many of my patients worry about how they are going to pay for surgery. The stress is ridiculous,” she says. “Everyone should have access to health care coverage.”

Suarez-Ligon does all she can to provide care for patients, whether they are insured or not. This includes one set of office hours and seeking health care testing services that will provide affordable care for patients.

She is proud of being part of a team at NJMS where community outreach is important – from offering free breast cancer screenings to collaborating with University Hospital to providing a Students Health Science Day for Newark’s Park Elementary School students and their families.

“A lot of the physicians here are alums,” Suarez-Ligon says. “We return because we love giving back and uplifting this community. They gave us our training. We’re back to give these patients the health care, hope and help they need.”

To learn more about what Suarez-Ligon and fellow faculty at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School are doing to combat disparities in care, visit their website.