Understanding healthcare can be confusing. For immigrants and refugees living in the United States, the challenge is often magnified by linguistic and cultural barriers.
University of Minnesota Health Hepatologist and Gastroenterologist Mohamed Hassan, MD, born in Somalia, is doing all he can to help bridge the gap between Minnesota's large East African community and local healthcare providers. We spoke with Hassan about his own background, and his passion for helping Somalis navigate and understand the Minnesota healthcare system.
What drove you to become a doctor?
As a young boy back in Africa, I never dreamed that I would become a doctor. There just weren’t many Somali doctors in Somalia to emulate. Once I began my studies, I knew becoming a doctor would give me an opportunity to do something for the people of my country. Just as I finished my residency and fellowship, civil war broke out and I was forced to move to the United States. Although I had to give up the idea of practicing medicine in Somalia, I did not give up medicine. I moved to the Twin Cities to continue my goal after learning about the work being done at the University of Minnesota for the Somali community.
What is your role as a hepatologist / gastroenterologist?
First and foremost, hepatologists and gastroenterologists specialize in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the digestive tract and liver. However, a large part of my job is education. A good number of the patients I see at University of Minnesota Medical Center originated from East African countries where vaccines and preventative measures that are familiar in the US are still relatively uncommon. While it is important to diagnose and treat diseases such as hepatitis, it is equally if not more important to teach patients about how to protect themselves from contracting and spreading diseases.
Why are you passionate about community engagement?
Growing up in the Horn of Africa, I saw first-hand the effect of diseases of the digestive tract—and viral hepatitis—can have on people. Roughly 10 to 12 percent of East African test positive for Hepatitis B and between 3 and 7 percent have Hepatitis C. Both of these diseases can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. While many immigrants from these countries have adapted to the medical system of the U.S., there is still a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding. Often I see my job as a bridge between cultures. I’ve found that even if a competent American doctor tells them something, they still need to hear it from me to know it is sound. This is why my role so important.
How do you bridge the cultural gap?
There are many ways my colleagues and I work to ensure immigrants understand not only the U.S. health system, but how to protect themselves against diseases. We conduct numerous outreach programs in the Somali community, including the University of Minnesota Health Somali and Oromo Liver Health Fair. Liver disease is a serious problem for East African immigrants, and many don’t fully understand treatment options. There is a fear of the unknown.
Take organ donation for example. Checking “organ donor” on a driver’s license is something many Minnesotans do. This is not the case in the Somali community. Some Somalis believe that being an organ donor would set them up for medical experiments. Others believe it goes against religious beliefs. My job is to share information, answer questions and talk to them in a way they will understand—in their own language.