September 11, 2020

Class of 2017 physician publishes article on empathy immigrants bring to health care

The Detroit Free Press published an opinion piece by Zlatan Cizmic, M.D., a member of the Wayne State University School of Medicine Class of 2017, on the importance of the empathy and commitment that immigrant physicians bring to health care.

Dr. Cizmic, 29, who also completed his undergraduate degree at Wayne State University, and his family fled war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s. He is now an orthopedic surgery resident in the Ascension Hospital system in Detroit.

His article, published Sept. 4, also touches on the many contributions immigrants make in Detroit and nationwide in the areas of health care, business and industry.

The complete article is below, and can be read in the Detroit Free Press.

Detroit’s immigrants, refugees play crucial role in COVID-19 recovery
Zlatan Cizmic

I was three years old when a grenade flew over my head and exploded against the side of our apartment building. It was 1994, and my family’s native Bosnia was engulfed in civil war. Heaps of drywall collapsed on top of me, and as my parents dug me out of the rubble, they knew exactly what they had to do: flee.

We escaped to Croatia, applied for refugee status and, six months later, moved into a tiny apartment in Detroit. We were poor and knew little about our new home, but we vowed to repay America’s kindness. Today, I’m an orthopedic surgery resident at the Ascension Hospital system, treating both orthopedic and COVID-19 patients across the Detroit metro area. My personal experience of poverty and war has equipped me to help vulnerable patients — especially now.

Immigrants and refugees bring a unique empathy and commitment to our work on the front lines. According to new research from New American Economy, released in partnership with the City of Detroit and surrounding counties, we are nearly 12% of the city’s health care workforce, 17% of local pharmacists and 14% of grocery workers. We own businesses and create jobs at high rates, especially in industries like health care and hospitality that are vital to our economic recovery.

My own experience as a refugee has proved crucial during the pandemic. I weathered those grueling 24-hour shifts in the spring in part because I’d already learned to cope with upheaval and trauma. When patients arrived suffering from the double anguish of COVID-19 and shattered bones, I could empathize with their fear. That understanding puts my patients at ease and allows them to open up about their own struggles. As a result I can tailor their treatment for a better recovery. Entering the relationship with empathy is key; studies show that this trait among doctors increases successful outcomes.

Speaking a patient’s native tongue also leads to better health results. Many immigrant health care workers are multilingual, which helps hospitals and private practices reach a broader client base. Immigrants also bring cultural fluency, which means we can deliver medical care more effectively. On a previous rotation, my attending and I were treating a Bosnian patient who was reluctant to take her blood pressure medication. I explained everything in her native language and addressed unspoken concerns about Western medicine, which I could sense in her hesitation. She thanked me, and when she returned a month later, her health had improved greatly.

The pandemic has made the importance of effective communication all too clear. None of us are safe until all of us are safe, and that includes immigrant communities. Multi-lingual health care workers have been crucial to spreading the safety standards that effectively contain the virus. But health care workers — both immigrant and American-born — cannot shoulder the burden of protecting our city and state. COVID-19 relief measures must include immigrants, low-income residents and other vulnerable populations. COVID-19 testing and treatment should be affordable for everyone.

Beyond health care, we need to support immigrant essential workers, especially business owners. After the Great Recession, immigrants played a key role in our economic recovery; in 2011, they founded 550 new businesses per month for every 100,000 immigrants, more than twice the rate of native-born Americans, according to NAE.

Let’s give them the tools they need to do that again.

Here in Detroit, I am dedicated to serving the community: volunteering to translate in hospitals and providing pro-bono health services to students in addition to my professional work. I do this because Americans modeled this same selflessness when my family landed here, war-weary and scared. A resettlement agency helped my parents find jobs, furnish our new home and get acclimated to the U.S. They helped our family transition from scarcity to security. Now my family — and so many immigrant families — want to do the same for this country. Give us the chance and we will.