March 1, 2007 A unique program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center is helping health care professionals understand and treat patients better by teaching them how to communicate with patients who do not speak English. The three-semester Medical Spanish course benefits not only the patients who can now receive treatment, but also the doctors, who are no longer limited in the people they can help.
Hispanics make up 14 percent of the U.S. population. As that number grows, so will the need for Spanish-speaking health care workers. Now a program is breaking down language barriers and paving the way for better care.
Emily Pratt checks on Anahi and her newborn daughter. The physician assistant student puts to use the Spanish she learned in a one-of-a-kind program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"When they see that I do speak Spanish, you see a definite relief and opening up of their comfort level," Pratt tells DBIS. She believes that two-way communication is the key to better care. "If they are comfortable in the environment, they are going to get well quicker.
That's one of the goals of the Medical Spanish classes for PAs developed by UT Southwestern linguist Cristina Gonzýlez. She says, "I try to teach my students to think more in Spanish than to think in English, because it's not a translation of one language to the other ... You are really conveying meaning, not words per se."
In the three-semester program, Gonzýlez stresses what she called respectful communication -- knowing the right words to say to the right person. For example, she says, "They'll also talk about the word 'barriga.' And those are words that you'll hear your patients say, but that you probably should use 'estýmago' because it's the more professional word to use." Gonzýlez is now working on a textbook to share her specialized curriculum with other physician assistant programs.
Patients aren't the only ones who benefit. "The providers get a lot out of it because they're able to tend to you know, twice as many people now. They're not just limited in one language as to the people that they can help," Gonzýlez says.
...And helping those patients could translate into good medical care for generations to come.
BACKGROUND: Access to basic health care is often restricted due to language and cultural barriers, and the number of medical personnel who speak Spanish is woefully inadequate. Now, the University of Texas, Southwestern, in Dallas, has created a unique medical Spanish program for their physician's assistant students that has enhanced their relationship with Spanish-speaking patients and improved the medical care patient receive.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM: UT-Southwestern is not the only medical institution offering medical Spanish to its students. There are several others, and these classes are becoming increasingly popular among students within medical professions. What makes the UT-Southwestern program unique is how it has incorporated its medical Spanish classes into a 31-month, fully integrated and required (as opposed to elective) part of the physician's assistant program. In the first semester, students learn grammar and vocabulary that corresponds to their medical training. In the second, they conduct mock physical exams with trained, Spanish-speaking simulated patients in a clinical setting. In the third semester, students must give a presentation on an illness in Spanish and conduct mock physical exams on each other.
BENEFITS: The program has been so successful that when students reach the rotation phase ý with the majority of their patients speaking only Spanish in Texas or any other southern state ý they often find they can conduct an examination without using a word of English. Being able to give a physical exam in Spanish can enhance care for Spanish-speaking patients. Interpreters can hinder the bond between clinicians and patients. Patients feel comfortable sharing their symptoms, and healthcare providers can better educate them about their health conditions. It's easier for patients to comply with treatment if the provider has a deeper knowledge of the patient's culture. As for the students, it gives an added bonus to aid them in their search, and can also help speed up their comprehension of Latinate medical terms.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.