New Study Highlights Latina Perceptions of Health
Christina Isabelli (above)
and Donna Hartweg
May 2, 2007
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The Spanish-speaking immigrant population is growing at staggering
rates in the United States, climbing more than 50 percent in 10 years according to
the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers. And healthcare professionals are looking for
different ways to communicate the idea of a healthy lifestyle to this burgeoning patient
Work by Illinois Wesleyan University’s School of Nursing Director Donna Hartweg and
Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Christina Isabelli-Garcia that gives healthcare
communication a boost is drawing international attention. An ongoing study by the
two women is asking Latina women the question: What does it mean to be healthy?
“If healthcare workers better understand what women feel when they come into this
country, they will be able to better guide them about a healthy lifestyle,” said Hartweg,
who compiled data based on focus groups led by Isabelli-Garcia.
The groups, consisting of 43 Mexican and Central American female immigrants to the
Bloomington-Normal area, were all conducted by Isabelli-Gracia in Spanish. “These
women had all immigrated to the United States within the last two to 10 years, ” said
Isabelli-Garcia of why the discussions were conducted in Spanish. “Their linguistic
ability in English was not high enough for them to successfully communicate their
perceptions of health to me.”
“If we want people to be physically active, we have to know how they view physical
activity,” said Hartweg. National studies show the health of Latina women decreases
after they come to the U.S, and they are at greater risk for diabetes. The findings
of the initial study will be published in May in the journal Hispanic Health Care International. In the article, the professors take results from the focus groups that may help
give health-care professionals an understanding of how to incorporate good health
habits into the lives of Spanish-speaking, immigrant women.
According to Hartweg, the initial study showed some surprising results. When asked
to describe a healthy person, women in all of the focus groups answered there was
no such thing. “Women associated being healthy as being without any pain or stress,”
said Hartweg. “So it was almost an impossible goal.” As discussion continued, the
women began to qualify main themes for a healthy person including a lack of disease,
being happy and proper nutrition and exercise.
“Women in the study found good nutrition difficult once they come to America,” said
Hartweg. “Many of them hold down two jobs, which removes the sit-down family meal
Hartweg said language can act as a barrier for doctors giving healthy advice to this
population of women. “One participant recounted a time when her doctor told her to
get exercise. She was working two jobs, which were physical in nature, and thought
the doctor meant work harder. It wasn’t until she returned to see him later that
he explained exercise meant activity outside of work,” said Hartweg, adding that health-care
workers who understand the challenges for Latina immigrant women can assist with the
The two professors will continue the research with a new round of focus groups concentrating
on how to encourage physical activity in immigrant Latina women. In evidence that
the issue of health-care for Spanish-speaking immigrants travels beyond borders, Hartweg
has been invited to present the second phase of the study in May at the International
Council of Nurses (ICN) in Yokohama, Japan. “Having the paper accepted indicated
the interest in promoting health to this population of immigrants,” said Hartweg of
speaking to the ICN that represents more than 120 countries.
The population of McLean County, where the study takes place, grew 16.5 percent over
the last decade, yet the Hispanic population jumped 48 percent over that same time,
according to the National Center for Health Statistics and Center for Disease Control.
“It’s an incredible number of people and a segment of the population that cannot be
ignored,” said Hartweg.
Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960