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Changing Lives with Language Concordant Care

Photo of Tania Gennell, who has long dark hair and wears a black blouse. She is smiling into the camera.

Creating safe spaces with Spanish-speaking patient care teams improves outcomes 

Dr. Tania Gennell, a surgery resident with New York University – Langone Health in Long Island, repeatedly witnesses how patient demeanors – and outcomes – change for the better when patients are spoken to by their doctors in their native languages. 

“There is much more comfort and trust,” Gennell said. “And the impact is greater when a surgeon performing the procedure, versus a third-party interpreter, conveys the information directly.”   

That is why Gennell – the president of National Medical Fellowships’ Young Leaders Council – has been co-establishing a free Spanish-speaking community clinic for pediatric surgical patients at New York Presbyterian and Columbia University’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in Washington Heights. 

“There is serious need for dedicated Spanish-speaking care teams to prevent readmissions, act sooner on medical emergencies, and prevent disease resistance in communities by ensuring patients understand how, when, and why they need to follow care as prescribed. Cultural and linguistic concordant care is proven to increase patient satisfaction, health literacy, and after-care compliance.”

Born in Mexico, Gennell moved to Los Angeles, California with her family when she was four years old.  

“My dad always wanted to become a doctor, but he only was able to finish the third grade,” she said. “Instead, he became a janitor at a hospital tasked with cleaning operating rooms post-surgery.”  

Though his daughter now helps perform surgeries, she didn’t always share her father’s career aspirations.  

“With intentions to work in government as a foreign service officer, I earned my Bachelor of Arts in linguistics from the University of California – Los Angeles in 2011,” Gennell said.  

The first-generation college student quickly changed course, however, when her uncle died two weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer.  

With surgical oncology in mind, Gennell – also a recipient of NMF’s Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation scholarship – completed a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program at San Francisco State University, worked as a researcher, translator, and patient care coordinator in medical clinics and surgery centers, and reestablished another free community clinic for Spanish-speaking populations before graduating from Ohio State University College of Medicine in 2019.  

Along the way, she discovered her love for taking care of whole families throughout their lifetimes and decided to pursue pediatric surgery with a fellowship in pediatric ECMO and surgery research at New York Presbyterian and Columbia University’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.  

Her and Dr. Vincent Duron’s Spanish-speaking community clinic for pediatric surgical patients is a direct result of her witnessing how varied access to and quality of care affects patient outcomes in this role.  

“Not being able to understand and follow instructions, or ask questions, is extremely challenging for vulnerable patients and their families,” Gennell said.  

She recalled a particularly heart-wrenching encounter with the mother of a one-pound baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, who, up until speaking with Gennell, was ineffectively being relayed information via an interpreter.  

“This mother had no idea her baby was likely not going to survive. The severity and gravity of this situation was not adequately reflected [by the translator], and if it were my family member, I’d want someone there, in-person, making sure they not only understood but also that the right things were being said, in the same detail and culturally common terms I would use to explain.”  

At one point, Gennell did in fact need to advocate for her own father when he needed emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage.  

“I was on the phone with him as his care team performed their rounds, so I asked questions – were they going to use a mesh? Would the surgery be open, or laparoscopic?,” she said. “If I wasn’t there to advocate, I worry about the sort of care he would have received.”  

Finally, on top of her current work to secure a pediatric surgery fellowship, Gennell is also passionately committed to her work with NMF.  

“We need more Black and brown surgeons,” she said. “As one of the only female surgeons of color in the organization, I’m interested in helping to recruit more.

“I want to be able to pay it forward by spreading the word of what an amazing organization NMF is – to make sure more people know about the opportunities that exist because of it.”