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Cal Poly to expand health services for Hispanic and Indigenous women in North Santa Barbara County

COSAM, College of Science and Mathematics, Kinesiology and Public Health, Mobile Health Unit
Brittany Anzel App
COSAM, College of Science and Mathematics, Kinesiology and Public Health, Mobile Health Unit

A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor has received a new grant to improve healthcare access for Hispanic and Indigenous women in North Santa Barbara County.

Kinesiology and Public Health Professor Suzanne Phelan recently secured a new $30,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation for the Cal Poly Mobile Health Clinic. The mobile clinic drives around the Central Coast providing free medical care to hundreds of uninsured people in the area.

Phelan said her new grant will help the clinic serve one population in particular: indigenous women living in Guadalupe and Santa Maria.

“Many of our patients work as farm laborers in the field or in maintenance. Most of our patients speak either Spanish or Mixtec and we provide access to medical care for these folks," she said.

Mixtec, also called Mixteco, is a group of languages spoken mainly by the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. There are dozens of these languages and dialects, which means people originally from those areas often struggle with language barriers here in the United States.

One of the biggest challenges is access to healthcare, which is often a huge problem for native Oaxacan people living in North Santa Barbara County. Even if they can arrange an appointment, time off work and transportation to a healthcare setting in a language they don’t speak, they often can’t get the services they need once they’re there.

One of the many farms in the Santa Maria/Guadalupe area.
Benjamin Purper
One of the many farms in the Santa Maria/Guadalupe area. Many of the people who live and work here are originally from the Oaxaca region of Southern Mexico.

“If they get to the clinic on foot or some other way, often the folks there don't speak their language and don't have an interpreter available to speak their language. Most clinics have English or Spanish — few have the Mixteco interpreters on site," Phelan said.

With that in mind, Phelan’s funding is targeted towards not only bringing the mobile clinic to parks and other public areas, but also making healthcare literature accessible. That means translating intake forms, surveys and pamphlets into Mixteco languages and also making them available in other formats like audio for people who were never taught to read or write in any language.

“We don't make the assumption that someone can read or write in English or Spanish, and when someone arrives we try to give them an explanation of what will happen during the visit. Just trying to make an environment where someone feels welcomes to have their health concerns addressed," she said.

Phelan said this is also an ongoing research operation to find out how to better serve this population in Santa Maria and Guadalupe.

“As we're delivering care, we want to always make sure we're doing the best we can and continuing to improve. So research is just integrated into everything we do, so we can improve identify any areas that need to be changed to better reach and improve the health of our patients," she said.

The clinic is part of a partnership between Cal Poly, the SLO NOOR Foundation and Marian Regional Medical Center. Funding comes from the Santa Barbara Foundation, the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, Dignity Health and other private donors.  

Information on clinic hours, locations and appointments, is online at Cal Poly’s Women's Mobile Health Center for Health Research.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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