New Medical Spanish Course to Help Break Down Barriers

    You are sitting on an examining table in a doctor’s office, waiting to hear what your physician has to say about your mystifying symptoms. But when the doctor begins to explain, you cannot understand the medical terms he uses. It’s a situation that can make anyone anxious, but add to that a language barrier – imagine your doctor only speaks English and you only speak Spanish.

    Luisa Piemontese, professor of Spanish, says people in this position are often scared. She has helped Spanish-speaking friends and family with communicating in doctor’s or dentist’s appointments. Piemontese will also assist if she is out in a doctor’s office and notices that someone is having trouble communicating because of a language barrier. And she is helping in another way: the new course on medical Spanish (Spanish 220) that she is teaching this fall will give students, particularly those going into medical or helping professions, the capability to converse with patients and make them feel comfortable.

    The course was developed by Resha Cardone and Sobeira Latorre, associate professors of Spanish. Cardone was originally approached by the Nursing Department in 2010 to create such a course and later worked with student Stephanie Caicedo, a double major in Spanish and nursing, who wanted to do an independent study to connect her two majors. Caicedo translated a series of documents into Spanish for the Connecticut Lifespan Respite Coalition (CLRC), a local agency. Thanks to this independent study, Cardone says, she met Peaches Quinn of the CLRC, who helped her understand that the need for medical Spanish courses existed not only at Southern but also within the community. “Despite the fact that her agency serves many Hispanic clients, they had no materials in Spanish to offer them,” Cardone says.

    By the end of Stephanie’s independent study, she says, she was hearing from both students and members of the community that a medical Spanish course was needed. When the time came to put together the course proposal, Latorre offered to help. “Neither of us have any expertise in the medical field, so we had to do quite a bit of research in putting the proposal together,” Cardone says.

    When Piemontese offered the course for the first time this fall, it was immediately apparent how much interest there is among students for such a course. The course filled quickly, prompting its developers to consider creating a medical Spanish track or minor, not only for nursing students, but also for students in related fields like public health, psychology and exercise science.

    Spanish 101 is the prerequisite for the course, along with three years of Spanish in high school. Spanish 200 is required for the LEP, but the medical Spanish course can fill the same requirement. “In Spanish 200, you learn the parts of the body on the outside,” Piemontese says. “In this course we’ll go inside the body.”

    Learning vocabulary is important, she says, and the students will do that, but her ultimate goal for the course is for them to be able to communicate. “We are focusing on the medical terms – the textbook is on medical Spanish, and the dictionary required for the course is for students in medical professions – but we’ll also do a lot of mock scenes of being in a hospital or doctor’s office.”

    She is interested in knowing how much her students know about the Spanish-speaking world and wants to move beyond stereotypical ideas of the cultures so that students understand they will be dealing with human beings, not stereotypes. Early in the course, Piemontese will talk about how important correct pronunciation is – “mispronunciation can be insulting,” she says.

    One way she plans to give her students hands-on experience is to take them with her to help at a medical clinic for migrant farm workers run by the University of Connecticut. The clinic, staffed by medical students, goes out into farms around the state and provides medical and dental care for the migrant workers.

    Piemontese volunteered with this clinic over the summer and has asked her students if they would like to join her. The first week of class, she and some of her students were headed to Lyman Orchards to accompany the clinic staff to observe and to help with communication, if asked.

    The students who registered for this course want to be there, Piemontese says. “It is immediately meaningful to them. They know it is a skill they need.”