When family physician Dr. Jeffrey C. Hutchings meets with a native Spanish speaker at his office in Charlotte for the first time, there is always a question lingering in the back of his mind – or perhaps it’s the bottom of his stomach.
As a foodie who became fluent in Spanish and fell in love with Mexican chilaquiles during a college semester in Mexico, Hutchings has found discussing favorite recipes is a great way to bond with Spanish-speaking patients from Latin America, including those not accustomed to regular visits with a family doctor.
“I'm a huge foodie” confided Hutchings, who treats patients at Novant Health Crown Point Family Physicians. “And one of the reasons I fell in love with Latin America was food, which is one of the best ways you can experience a culture. So I ask my Mexican patients to tell me about their favorite variation of chilaquiles, or how do you like your mofongo prepared for my Puerto Rican patients. I ask Salvadorians about their favorite pupusa filling.”
Of the three, Hutchings admits a strong liking for chilaquiles, a hearty Mexican breakfast made from fried tortilla wedges soaked in salsa. It is traditionally garnished with cotija cheese and served with eggs and black beans, chicken or pork.
Making that cultural connection is critical to Hutchings’ mission as a family physician, which calls for helping people with their everyday health concerns and being available with same-day appointments when they need him most. Novant Health offers a wide range of primary care services including family medicine, internal medicine, pediatric care and ob-gyn services to help patients maintain and protect their health with regular checkups, immunizations, health screenings, and treatments for illness and injuries.
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Making connections with the rapidly growing number of Spanish-speaking patients fulfills a core mission of Novant Health, which is to provide services to underserved communities. About 10% of the people living in Novant Health’s service area speak Spanish at home, including many immigrants not accustomed to visiting a family physician for annual checkups.
Hutchings got his first taste of Spanish at Sagamore Elementary School in Atlanta, which served a lot of immigrant neighborhoods. Every school day his school bus would fill with the sound of Spanish as kids from Central America and South America piled on. A family trip to Puerto Rico heightened his fascination with the Spanish language and Latino culture. In high school, he got his first opportunity to study the language, and college provided an opportunity to study at Universidad La Salle Cuernavaca in Mexico for a semester.
“Becoming immersed in Mexican culture for an extended period of time accelerated my language skills and once I returned home, I was fairly fluent,” Hutchings recalled. “I changed my college major from chemistry to Spanish and graduated with a B.A. in Spanish.”
He traveled to Ibarra, Ecuador, on a medical mission during his medical residency and has vacationed in Cartagena, Colombia, and throughout Mexico.
Hutchings’ interest in medicine can also be traced to his early years growing up in Atlanta, where his mother worked as a nurse anesthetist for 40 years.
“Hearing about her experiences day in and day out and having several cousins who are physicians, including three who are family physicians, encouraged me,” he said.
Those conversations and other insights convinced him he could have his biggest impact in family medicine. In the United States, family physicians are a reliable first point of contact for health concerns and assisting patients in preventing, understanding and managing illnesses as well as setting health goals and navigating the healthcare landscape.
“I wanted to pursue a medical specialty where I could get to know my patients more completely while developing a close and ongoing relationship with them,” said Hutchings. “Family medicine afforded me that possibility. By developing a deeper understanding of each patient’s life, it has enabled me to offer a more personalized level of care.”
This patient-centered approach to medicine builds trust that can save the doctor and the patient valuable time diagnosing symptoms and finding the best specialists or treatment options. For instance, many Americans will tell their family doctor about stressful work and family situations before sharing those concerns with close friends, or even family. This enables the physician and patient to take proactive measures to manage stress before it leads to acute or chronic illness.
“It allows you to treat Joe Smith the person, rather than just Joe Smith the diabetes patient,” Hutchings said.
By being able to speak Spanish and hiring native Spanish speakers as assistants, Hutchings can have that relationship with many more people in Charlotte than he might otherwise.
“Being able to speak Spanish with native speakers has helped to ease patients’ fears about care and has helped to break down barriers to preventative care,” he explained. “My medical assistants are Cuban and Dominican, so that helps with continuity of care. It enables us to provide culturally specific care by being sensitive and responsive to patients’ cultural beliefs and traditions.”
In Hutchings’ case, it is a good bet there will be a conversation about food somewhere along the way.
“I’m a big fan of chilaquiles,” he said. “My favorite version isn’t the healthiest so it’s definitely not an everyday meal: tortillas covered in salsa verde and refried beans. Add on crema, queso fresco, diced onion, cilantro and sliced jalapeno. Top with a fried egg and serve with avocado slices on the side. How about you?”