Course helps University of Iowa physicians communicate with patients who speak Spanish

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Jessica Ortiz helps a colleague pronounce a word in Spanish as she teaches conversational Spanish as well as medical terms in Spanish during a teleconference language class Nov. 10 from her home in Coralville. Ortiz says having even a basic knowledge of medical terms in Spanish and simply making the effort to connect with Spanish-speaking patients helps ease their fears. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Speaking a different language in a health care setting can not only prevent patients from communicating their pain or doctors from imparting important medical news or instructions — it can prevent people from fully seeking care.

Jessica Ortiz saw it with her own eyes with her Ecuadorian parents, who are not fluent in English.

“Sometimes here they’re like, ‘oh no, I don’t feel comfortable, maybe they don’t understand what I’m saying,'” Ortiz, of Coralville, said, noting that even planning an appointment can become an insurmountable challenge. “So they need help.”

Luckily, her parents can get this help from their daughter, who is a medical graduate and speaks fluent English. Like last year, when her mother twisted her ankle and had to seek emergency treatment.

“I had to be there all the time,” she said. “To translate what the supplier was saying.”

Spanish phrases and its English translation are seen as Jessica Ortiz teaches a colleague conversational Spanish terms as well as Spanish medical terms during a teleconference language course from her home in Coralville. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Spanish phrases and its English translation are seen as Jessica Ortiz teaches a colleague conversational Spanish terms as well as Spanish medical terms during a teleconference language course from her home in Coralville. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

But because children so often act as translators for parents who are not fluent, the message doesn’t always get through. “Sometimes parents feel embarrassed to say something really private to the child, that the child has to tell the provider,” Ortiz said.

This can have significant implications and limitations. But something as simple as a “hola” or “como estas” from a doctor can change everything, according to Ortiz.

“They relax more,” she said. “They’re more like, OK, I can do it myself, or the doctor will really take care of me.”

Having volunteered for much of his 16 years in the United States – sharing his language and culture with his daughter’s elementary school and with the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, for example – Ortiz Carver University of Iowa College of Medicine saw a need she could help fill.

So she designed a Spanish course for medical teachers who already had some ability to speak Spanish – similar to the one she teaches at the senior center – but aimed specifically at those who need to communicate and understand medical information.

It does not teach grammar, syntax, or general vocabulary.

“It’s very specifically designed for a healthcare provider with an intermediate to advanced level of Spanish, so we can just focus on teaching medical terminology in Spanish,” she said. “The subjects are very specific.

In the fall of 2021, the university offered for the first time the “Free Medical Spanish” course for teachers “with an intermediate to advanced level of Spanish” focusing on teaching terminology, pronunciation, cultural practices and health beliefs of medical Spanish specific to the Latino and Hispanic community. .

“So we’re trying to improve their cultural competence,” she said.

Among its objectives, the course aims to give providers the confidence to obtain basic medical histories from Spanish-speaking patients and perform a complete physical examination.

Other course objectives include teaching physicians Spanish medical terminology; how to translate basic anatomical terms to and from English; and ways to improve conversational skills during a medical interview with Spanish-speaking patients.

“The importance of this course is establishing and cultivating a trusting relationship between provider and patient, as well as providing the best patient care possible,” according to a description of the course that the Office of Diversity, equity and inclusion user interface distributed to medical schools. “Fear is a common emotion that resides in patients who are not fluent in English; therefore, having a basic knowledge of Spanish medical terminology can eliminate the fear that Spanish-speaking patients may feel.

By developing cultural competence alongside language skills, Ortiz says, UI providers can ask the best questions with compassion.

“It’s something that really, really surprised us, because we had a lot of people reacting very positively to it,” she said.

The course, starting in fall 2021, has offered two cohorts per semester – meaning they’ve done six in total so far, including spring and fall 2022. Each cohort lasts eight weeks , one hour a week – which is just about any organizer can squeeze while keeping doctors interested, given their busy schedules.

“The challenge here is finding a moment for providers,” she said.

Because almost everyone books a lunch hour, the course is offered at noon on Thursdays and Fridays – with two more cohorts scheduled for the spring. So far, each group has included eight to 10 faculty members, and Ortiz said there’s a limit so everyone can ask questions and engage.

Those who have completed the course come from internal medicine, surgical units and specialties like gastroenterology.

“They say they feel safer, more confident with the pronunciation,” Ortiz said, bragging about the benefit of using mock interviews to build confidence. “It’s a big thing.”

As demographics shift in Iowa — with Lanitx’s population proving to be the fastest growing minority group, nearly doubling in the past decade — the demand for bilingual medical services may increase. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Iowa’s minority population will grow from more than 400,000 in 2020 to nearly 800,000 in 2040.

“We have been approached by different medical schools – nurses and other healthcare providers – who would like something similar,” she said. “So we are exploring another way.”

Jessica Ortiz teaches a colleague conversational Spanish terms as well as Spanish medical terms during a language class via teleconference Nov. 10 from her home in Coralville. Ortiz says having even a basic knowledge of medical terms in Spanish and simply making the effort to connect with Spanish-speaking patients helps ease their fears. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

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