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Nursing Students Head to Spanish Class

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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.

For the first time, the University of Houston College of Nursing will offer a class in Beginning Medical Spanish to prepare students to care for patients with limited English-language proficiency. The two –week class will be offered on the UH Sugar Land Campus during the May mini-semester.

Portrait of a hispanic woman with light brown hair

“Among many Hispanic patients there are language barriers and a mistrust of the health care system,” said Maria E. Perez, Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies. “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.”

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 contribute to their poor treatment in health care settings.

Unlike a traditional Spanish language class, Perez says students won’t focus on extensive verb conjugation. Rather, the goal will be to develop language skills that will allow them to obtain basic patient history, perform physical assessments, all with empathy and culturally appropriate interactions.

The nursing class is structured around modules with specific learning outcomes. Students will study vocabulary and grammar and complete written assignments. They’ll also practice role-playing scenarios to review what they’ve learned and to model cultural competency and professionalism. The class meets 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 & 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.

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