Maria E. Perez, instructional assistant professor with the University of Houston, greets the class of Spanish language students.
“Buenos dias,” the class responds. Today’s lessons will include vocabulary, a fill-in-the blank quiz and role playing exercises to practice the new words.
“Vamos a revisar la tarea de organos humanos,” Perez continues, showing a slide with an outline of the human body and its various organs. “You’ll hear a lot about ‘vertebra’ or ‘la columna,’ as in ‘dolor de la columna.’ They all refer to back pain.”
Students in this class are similar to others who struggle with some words or phrases, but they differ in one important way—they’re all nursing students.
The class, Beginning Medical Spanish, is a new offering to the UH College of Nursing curriculum to prepare students to care for patients with limited English-language proficiency. The two-week class on the UH Sugar Land Campus was offered during the May mini-semester (the two weeks between the spring and summer semesters).
“The Hispanic population is growing, and I need to be able to communicate effectively as a nursing professional,” said Jenni Zibili, nursing student in the college’s Second Degree BSN program.
Unlike a traditional Spanish language class, students do not focus on extensive verb conjugation. Rather, the goal is to develop language skills to assist in obtaining basic patient history, perform physical assessments, all with empathy and culturally appropriate interactions.
“The Hispanic culture is very diverse, and we take that into consideration in this class,” Perez said. “We may have a word that is used for a Mexican patient, but it may be different for a Spanish patient or Cuban.”
According to the Pew Research Center there are approximately 55 million Hispanics in the U.S., 70 percent of whom indicate they use Spanish at home; 23 percent indicate their accent or the manner in which they speak English contributes to their poor treatment in health care settings.
“I grew up in south Texas and already know how to speak Spanish, or Spanglish, really,” said student Sandra Valdez. “I wanted to expand my knowledge to include words of different Hispanic cultures because I don’t want to offend. I want to connect with them and help them.”
Negotiating the health care system is daunting—understanding insurance, finding a provider, securing appointments, communicating health issues. These challenges, coupled with language barriers, can discourage individuals from seeking help or cause them to misunderstand their diagnoses or treatments.
“Among many Hispanic patients there are language barriers and a mistrust of the health care system,” Perez said. “Health care professionals who can successfully communicate and understand their patients will be better equipped to overcome these challenges and to empower their patients to be active participants in their health decisions.”
The nursing class is structured around modules with specific learning outcomes. Students studied vocabulary and grammar and completed written assignments. They practiced role-playing scenarios to review what they’ve learned and to model cultural competency and professionalism. The class met in three-hour sessions, five times a week.
“Our students reflect the diversity of the patients they will be serving,” said Kathryn Tart, professor and founding dean of the college of nursing. “Their academic preparation must include all avenues to connect with their diverse patients, among them language and culture. We are happy to offer this class and to see the enthusiasm with which our students have approached it.”
The class is an addition to the Department Hispanic Studies’ Spanish for Global Professions Minor, which Perez assisted in development. The courses are for students whose careers will interact with Hispanic communities. The courses are offered for business, translation and interpretation, and health.
“There has been a definite increase in interest in Spanish for specific purposes,” she said. “The rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States has created a niche for practical courses that address the particular needs of this population.”
The Office of Minority Health (housed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) has developed standards for public institutions that receive federal funds to provide language services in the preferred language of the patients. Additionally, there is a new focus on increasing the number of health professionals who are capable of providing competent linguistic and cultural health care. •
Source University of Houston