Removing Language Barriers

How medical Spanish can help PTs communicate with their patients.

Traditionally, if you planned on going into a medical field, you took Latin as a foreign language. Today, however, depending on where you practice, you may be better served (and more marketable) taking Spanish. Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world, and could be an important tool for many health care providers.

But even if you don't become fluent, learning medical Spanish may be a good option. Numerous opportunities exist for health care providers who want to learn medical Spanish, including college courses, self-paced texts, tapes, online courses, conversation groups and enrollment in language schools. Many hospitals offer specialized courses, and there are many programs and tutorials for purchase that include anatomy, phrases for the medical interview, terminology, including descriptions of diagnostic studies and how to explain prescriptions.

Hispanic Population Growth
The growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. has resulted in increased demand that health care providers gain greater skills and understanding about caring for the population. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, "the Latino population, already the nation's largest minority group, will triple in size and will account for most of the nation's population growth from 2005 through 2050. Hispanics will make up 29 percent of the U.S. population in 2050, compared with 14 percent in 2005."1

Norma MartĂ­nez Rogers, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor/clinical, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said it is important to learn medical Spanish because of this population growth. "This is not a trend but a necessity, as we are demanding for healthcare professionals to become more in tune with the diversified population they serve," said Rogers. "There is more of a demand by accrediting agencies for hospitals and patient care facilities to meet the language needs of all the patients being served."

Learning to speak the language of the patient being served helps to eliminate health disparities. It is very difficult to take care of patients if the medical professionals caring for them do not know how to speak their language. How can they receive a thorough patient assessment? How can they ask information about their illness if they cannot speak the language?

Hospitals Placing Importance on Medical Spanish
At Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, NJ, a large number of nurses expressed an interest in learning medical Spanish when informally polled. Because the hospital has a very diverse patient population, administration felt such a program would help the organization improve its communication.

Now, a class taught by a bilingual instructor is offered four times a year, said Eva Matos-Botex, director of organizational development and patient relations, Englewood Hospital. "The only materials [the hospital] needed were a flipchart and colored markers. All participants received a handbook and Spanish/English dictionary. Commonly used phrases were learned and practiced over two sessions," Matos-Botex said.

For MaryAnn Shea, RN, mother/baby unit, Englewood Hospital, participating in the course helped her communicate more effectively with the new moms on her unit. "We have quite a few Spanish-speaking patients, so this helped me facilitate communication with patients," she said. "The course was very helpful and the instructor worked with us individually to learn about the specific areas of the hospital we work in and the key phrases we use."

Levels of Learning
Communication barriers can lead to serious consequences for health, including misdiagnoses, inappropriate medication and mistrust. Subsequently, Spanish-speaking patients may be less likely to return for follow-up visits and adhere to prescribed regimens.

Individuals who believe health care providers should learn Spanish argue it is time to include Spanish as a second language in school curricula as a means of responding to the new composition of the U.S.2 Others favor assisting students to become culturally sensitive and learn how to collaborate with translators and interpreters to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking patients and their families.3

Removing Language Barriers

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I am a physical therapist who teaches CEU courses around the country in SPANISH FOR PHYSICAL AND OCCUPATIONAL THERAPISTS and SPANISH FOR PEDIATRIC PTS, OTS AND SLPS. I actually agree with the article AND a lot of what Andrea has to say. I'm a strong believer in good communication enhancing treatment and rehab. outcomes. As Andrea states,it is important for immigrants to learn English. And they are at a rate as fast as many of our ancestors did when they first entered this country. It is typical for first generation immigrants to put all of their energy into working menial jobs in order to support their families. The second generation becomes totally fluent, and by the third generation, many times people only learn a few words of their gradparents native tongue. I'm glad that there are classes in English for immigrants and wish there were more of these. But in the meantime, I also am happy to use my language skills to better communicate with clients who don't yet know fluent English. Monika Mann, PT www.delnorteseminars.com

Monika Mann,  Physical TherapistNovember 03, 2009

I live in an area with a high percentage of Hispanic people and continue to be of the opinion "when in Rome do as the Romians do" I feel that if you are going to live in America that you should attempt to speak English. I am not opposed to learning to speak a second language, Spanish, in order to be able to communicate with people who have moved here but I feel it is presumptious of people to expect US citizens to learn their language in order to be of assistance to them with their medical problems. We are all working 40 to 50 hrs. a week in order to support the influx of people that are coming into our country and are in need of all kinds of assistence, and to have to take courses in order to assimilate them into our society is where I have the greatest complaint. I also realize that a second language is going to benefit me as an individual and would also recommend that perhaps offering courses to the Hispanic population that would allow them a small amount of English would be of benefit to them as well as help them understand those of us that are trying to learn Spanish. Perhaps a course with both English and Spanish together would be of greatest benefit as you could use each other to gather the greatest information in the shortest amount of time.

Andrea Wright,  PT,  HH AgencySeptember 29, 2008
Midland, WI


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