¿Se Habla Espanol? Someone’s Life Could Depend on It

¿Se Habla Espanol? Someone’s Life Could Depend on It

Language barriers are a burgeoning issue facing health care practitioners in the United States. A growing influx of immigrants means English is no longer the only language in use in most clinics, and in some sites in certain regions of the country, English-speakers are in the distinct minority. The growing Latino population in the United States is the most obvious example.

According to the 2002 US Census report, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the United States, representing 13.3% of the total population, and two of five were foreign born. Latinos represented greater percentages of the total population in the West and the South, with 44.2% and 34.8% respectively.

Learn that “respire despacio” will direct your MRI patients to “breathe slowly,” and other medical Spanish, in The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Spanish for Health Care Professionals.

The inability to communicate with patients can result in suboptimal care; it also can have longer-lasting—and potentially more detrimental—side effects. “A lot of these patients don’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid of being deported,” says Cristina Gonzalez, assistant professor and teacher of a 2-year medical Spanish curriculum for physician assistants (PAs) at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UT), Dallas. “But if they have a good, positive experience, they’re more likely to go back for follow-up. You’ll see better continuity of care and better compliance with care—for example, if a pregnant woman has a good experience all through her pregnancy, then she’ll be more likely to take her child in for immunizations.”

Where are English-speaking clinicians to turn? A class like Gonzalez’s teaches medical Spanish in “blocks” that correspond with student PAs’ areas of medical study. Gonzalez, who improvised her own curriculum, describes the process as less grueling than one might imagine. “Medical terminology is a jargon in and of itself,” she says. “And a lot of these Spanish words are Latin-based, and so is a lot of medical terminology.”

Gonzalez stresses, though, that all the vocabulary in the world is meaningless without the grammar to hold it together. “It’s putting those terms into sentences that’s hard,” she notes. “A lot of students get frustrated at first because they really want to get into the terms. But soon they realize that without any verbs, they can’t form a sentence. And knowing a verb, they can figure out other parts of speech. For example, if they know that sangrar is to bleed, then they know that la sangre is blood, and sangriento is bloody.”

Problems arise, however, when different types of medical students or clinicians from multiple areas of specialization attempt to take classes together. “We did try one time to have a combined class, but it was very hard because the terminology is so different for each discipline,” Gonzalez recalls. “The medical school here tried to start an elective program, but it didn’t work out very well because we had to work around the first-year students’ exam schedules.”

¿Qué le Ocurre?: Medical Spanish Resources

University of Ghent’s online glossary of medical terms:

University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey’s compilation of useful phrases for patient evaluation:

DiversityRx, which promotes better cultural understanding:

PalmPilot medical Spanish translator program:

Interactive Drama Inc’s computer simulation of a conversation with a Spanish-speaking patient:

At UT, Gonzalez reports, physicians can go through an entire rotation without speaking English. And the issue is even more complicated at Scottsdale Medical Imaging, Scottsdale, Ariz, where a mélange of Latino, Russian, Middle Eastern, and European immigrants can be a challenge for English-speaking workers.

“We probably deal with Spanish-speaking [patients] only at least once a day now,” says Michele Arvin, a technical supervisor at the facility. “We have a front-desk person who is bilingual. We hired a tech who is bilingual. Our scheduler is bilingual, and there are customer service reps who are bilingual. When we’re hiring, it’s a definite positive if you can speak Spanish. If a bilingual person leaves, we try to replace that person with someone who can speak Spanish.”

The cluster of imaging centers has dealt with the growing number of languages spoken in its vicinity by hiring bilingual staff. “Our Human Resources director has basically created a cheat sheet that says, if you need a Spanish-speaking person, call this number. German, this person. Russian, this person.” Technologists also use cheat sheets with essential phrases like “no breathing.”

As new waves of immigrants continue to arrive, communicating with patients in radiology departments and imaging centers will continue to challenge health care professionals and employees.

—C. Vasko

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