The Spanish certificate program is unique in that it teaches healthcare professionals not only basic Spanish vocabulary but also the medical terms needed to discuss health issues and procedures with patients.
By Carol McPhail
“How long has the pain been happening?” Hewes asks in Spanish as the two sit in an exam room at the Center for Women’s Health on the hospital’s fourth floor. “How often are you feeling it?”
Miranda answers in Spanish as Hewes nods. The next step, the doctor tells her, is to do a quick exam and schedule an ultrasound in one to two weeks. Then she asks the patient to return for a follow-up visit in four weeks.
The conversation moved along quickly without the help of an interpreter thanks to Hewes’ participation in the Graduate Certificate in Spanish for Healthcare Professionals at the University of South Alabama. While completing her practicum for the four-course program in 2022, Hewes became comfortable enough with her new language skills to suggest dedicating clinic time on Fridays just for Spanish-speaking patients.
“I wanted to practice my Spanish, and we had women who needed healthcare,” Hewes said. “When I presented the idea of creating a Spanish clinic to my chair, she was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”
Hewes became interested in building her Spanish skills a year into the COVID pandemic, having taken some language courses as an undergraduate at South. “I felt I had more time to restructure. I thought, ‘This was a good spot in my life,’” she said. “As an attending, I was more comfortable in my role and felt I could take on a new opportunity.”
Established three years ago, the Spanish certificate program is unique in that it teaches healthcare professionals not only basic Spanish vocabulary but also the medical terms needed to discuss health issues and procedures with patients.
“This certificate is designed to equip our healthcare providers with the requisite language proficiency and cultural competency to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients,” said Zoya Khan, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish and director of the program. “Improved communication with this large patient demographic should enable healthcare practitioners to be even more effective in treating their Spanish-speaking patients.”
The program consists of four courses, three of which are taken online. The fourth course is a practicum to be completed at a USA-approved healthcare facility either in the U.S. or in a Spanish-speaking country. Remote simulation is also offered through USA’s simulation lab.
The online courses bring together healthcare professionals from various parts of the United States. They meet virtually with an instructor and each other to practice their pronunciation skills. “We would role play and discuss topics for class, such as respiratory symptoms to find out if someone has pneumonia,” Hewes said. “That was a great experience to immerse yourself in the language.”
Laura Anderson, LICSW, a social worker in the OB-GYN clinic at Children’s & Women’s Hospital, entered the certificate program in 2022. “It’s not easy, but it’s a good program and well worth it,” she said. “I’ve been able to understand some of the patients’ symptoms during check-in and been able to communicate them to the registration staff.”
Hewes’ OB-GYN colleague Craig Sherman, M.D., was already fluent and could converse with his Spanish-speaking patients during his regular OB-GYN clinic. But Hewes said she found it helpful to set aside specific hours to immerse herself in a language she was still learning.
“Once I was face to face with patients, seeing how grateful they were that I was trying, it didn’t matter as long as we could communicate,” she said. “It blew me away how appreciative they were.”