Yaritza Vargas: Eliminating Language and Cultural Barriers to Improve Healthcare
Hi! It’s me, Spiffy the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making an impact on UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being. Today I'm conducting my 300th interview with someone who is showing the world how to solve problems and achieve the UN SDGs! Yaritza Vargas, co-founder and COO of LingoHealth, is working hard to improve healthcare for immigrants. Let’s see how she’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome, Yaritza, I feel very honored to have you here today. Can you tell me what challenges you are addressing through LingoHealth?
Yaritza: Well, it’s an honor to be here, Spiffy. As a first-generation American, I have seen first hand how language and cultural barriers can make life more challenging for millions of folks in immigrant communities. These challenges are especially difficult when it comes to navigating US healthcare. Multilingual families are more likely to involve their younger loved ones in care but there often are not tools to facilitate this care. My co-founder and I are building a digital health company so families like ours can have better care.
Spiffy: I can attest to how difficult it is to navigate the US system! What motivated you to do it? It seems so daunting!
Yaritza: While I wish I could say my dedication to increasing access to healthcare was rooted in a more noble story, it stems from an enduring frustration. Like many eldest daughters in immigrant households, I was tasked with having to advocate for my family in this deeply broken system from a very young age. Growing up, I remember going with my siblings and parents to their appointments. In addition to translating increasingly specialized appointments, I found myself fighting so my loved ones would get the right services and medications.
Spiffy: How would you say that LingoHealth is working to make the US and the world a more caring and equitable place for people?
Yaritza: More than one in five Americans speak a language other than English at home. During this pandemic, we have seen the importance of ensuring our healthcare system can serve all of its patients. We at LingoHealth are using technology to give family advocates visibility into the next steps for care to get their loved ones to the most appropriate site of care and better manage their health. Healthcare, including digital health, should not be "one-size-fits-all" and we believe creating a digital solution that incorporates family and culture into the care of aging Americans is critical.
Spiffy: Have you reached any milestones you’re particularly proud of? What kind of impact do you anticipate?
Yaritza: Well, Spiffy, we began exploring our business idea early in the pandemic and conducted hundreds of interviews. As we headed into 2021, the one question we heard from the doctors and patient family members was "how do I get my loved ones vaccinated?" We realized that much of the information on vaccines were primarily in English and buried in text-heavy websites. I know for the Latinx community, many folks communicate exclusively on WhatsApp—why wasn't there information that was multilingual and easily shareable in this type of channel? We launched a site with downloadable information in five different languages regarding Covid-19 vaccinations. We had over 1,000 site visitors in the first three weeks and 83% of downloads were in a language other than English!
Spiffy: That’s incredible, Yaritza! It shows how needed this is. I’m curious if you’ve ever faced failure. Did you give up or learn something important?
Yaritza: When we started pitching LingoHealth to investors, we faced our share of skepticism. Despite presenting a trove of compelling demographic data and user anecdotes, many investors, especially ones with limited personal experience with this inequity, did not believe this was a problem. My co-founder and I quickly learned to tailor our pitch for very different kinds of investors (some folks got excited by our mission and others preferred we stick to the numbers!) and to dust ourselves off after rejections. Since our business idea was tied to our personal passion, it was quite difficult to not take some investor rejections personally, but ultimately, we think this helped us find the best possible investors who believe in what we are building.
Spiffy: I believe you can learn from anyone and I love lessons from kids, peers, or even pets! Have you learned anything interesting lately?
Yaritza: I am a proud dog and cat mom. One thing I've learned from Goku, my Klee Kai, is "Let go and enjoy the smells!" Goku loves to pull toward interesting smells during walks, which has sometimes led to some really interesting, new routes we wouldn't have otherwise found.
Spiffy: I love it! Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Yaritza: We have seen the biases our families face when they enter a clinical setting — how the front desk staff members brusquely dismiss questions about the forms, how doctors seem impatient or even condescending to patients who speak with accents, and how such behavior can manifest through terms like “total body dolor” that disempower these patients. We have watched family members delay necessary care and, in certain extreme instances, leave the US to seek care. We understand that fears and anxiety coupled with these cultural barriers can create a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to health. Limited English proficient patients are significantly less likely to have a usual place of care and more likely to have worse health status.
Spiffy: I hope that LingoHealth can help put caring back into healthcare! Thanks so much for sharing your passion and insights with us, Yaritza, it’s been an honor.
Yaritza Vargas is the co-founder and COO of LingoHealth. Her professional experience ranges from policy at the National Institute of Health to consulting with federal healthcare payers. She was on the founding team of Verano Health, a chronic disease management nonprofit. Yaritza has an MBA from Stanford University and a BS in Healthcare Management and Policy from Georgetown University. (Nominated by Visible Hands. First published on the Ladderworks website on November 2, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.