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Belleville resident spreads message of cultural competence

 Have you ever been to a doctor’s office or hospital in a foreign country?
Did you feel comfortable there, not being 100 percent fluent in the language and customs? Did the doctor prescribe treatment you’d never even heard of back home?
Immigrants in the United States struggle with such issues everyday, and Belleville resident Helen Dao has made it her mission to lessen their burden.
Presenting guest lectures and workshops around the country, Dao aims to train health care providers in the importance of "cultural competence," and how to break down cultural barriers to better understand patients’ needs.
"A lot of my work is based on the field experience that I have, first-hand, working with health care providers and families from Latin America and Asia, where, very often, misunderstandings are not only based on the language barriers," Dao said. "A lot has to do with the cultural traditions that these families bring to America."
Dao cited a female patient hailing from Latin America who had a terminal illness and a teenaged daughter with severe developmental issues. When a physician tried to educate the patient on group homes for the daughter, the patient became upset, and thought the doctor was insinuating that she wasn’t a good mother, Dao said.
"In certain parts of Latin America, most of the families are very close, and they feel the families should take care of each other, not a stranger," Dao said. "The physician was just making a recommendation, but the patient saw it as ‘I’m not capable; what’s wrong with me, besides being sick, as a mother?’"
Dao herself is an immigrant to this country, having moved here from El Salvador 21 years ago. She has spent the past seven of those years in Belleville.
"For me, going through what some of the new immigrants are going through, or have gone through, I definitely can understand some of the struggles and some of the fear: The fear to speak because of your accent, the fear to show your face because you look different, fear because you can’t understand your medication labels…"
The latter, Dao said, is particularly problematic because several immigrants come from countries where they were never taught to read or write, even in their native language.
Dao’s published research has been nationally recognized by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, she said, and her field projects have been cited in many national presentations. She is also a guest speaker for the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality and the National Epilepsy Foundation, where she focuses on the "stigma" attached to epilepsy and how to best educate the Hispanic community about it, Dao said.
She is president and CEO of Jersey City-based Dao Management Consulting Services Inc. — a firm known for building best practices in public health programs that serve multicultural clients. She also serves on committees with the American Heart Association and New York State Multicultural Advisory Council.
Dao’s areas of expertise are the cultures of Latin America, Caribbean non-Hispanic areas, and Asian Chinese, she said.
She has also presented lectures, among many other places, at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Beth Israel Hospital, the New Jersey Society for Public Health Education and the New York Interagency Council of New York City — where numerous area non profits converge. She has also trained social work case managers and human resource managers in the topic of cultural diversity, in general.
"I go where the need is," Dao said, citing a recent stay in Little Rock, Ark., where she trained healthcare professionals in addressing the needs of Hispanic migrant workers. "I want to target more rural areas, because there are lots of migrant workers across the country; I’ve been visiting mostly cities so far."
In Belleville, in the 2010 U.S. Census, Caucasian was not the dominant race in town for the first time in documented history; Hispanic was.
"Nationwide, that’s the direction we’re going," Dao added. "By 2030, Hispanic is going to be the majority, in numbers."
For that reason, Dao said she’d like to offer free workshops to any Belleville organizations who want tips on how to work with residents hailing from a Hispanic culture. Interested Belleville organizations can contact Dao by emailing
What kinds of tips did Dao have for Belleville’s Hispanic immigrants themselves?
"When they go to the doctor, for example, I always emphasize to them that you have to ask questions," she said. "The Latino community is raised not to ask questions of authority. They give us prescriptions; it is our job to take them and leave.
"… Ask questions, and people will help, and they will be kind. Americans are very kind," Dao said, citing how she often asked for help outside of the doctor’s office, too, when she was trying to learn new English words. "If Americans see you are interested in learning and you’re a hardworking person, the support will be there. I found the support."

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