Medical Spanish course aims to bolster doctor-patient communication

Medical terminology alone can complicate a doctor-patient interview, but the challenges multiply exponentially when neither person speaks the same language.

With that in mind, the Keck School of Medicine is offering a medical Spanish elective to better prepare medical students to communicate with their future patients.

Peter Katsufrakis, associate dean for student affairs, told first-year students during orientation week that the demographics of the local community guarantee that, “you’ll be interviewing Spanish-speaking patients.”

The course grew out of ad hoc Spanish conversation sessions organized by students over several years. The informal sessions garnered significant interest, but participation frequently waned in the face of demands the formal medical school curriculum imposed on students.

Eventually, medical students Chris LeMaster and Shannon Peterson determined that the only way to guarantee continuity was to create a regularly scheduled course that would be offered for credit.

In 2004 they secured funding and found a teacher, David Zarazúa, professor in the USC Department of Spanish and Portuguese, who was already teaching medical Spanish to physician assistants.

The Keck School now offers a non-graded, for-credit medical Spanish elective, as a result of their efforts, and those of Aaron Neinstein, Katherine Talbert Estlin, Vanessa Lauzon, Wendy White, student representatives for medical Spanish for the first year the classes took place.

Estlin, Lauzon and White continued helping to keep the class running last year; Estlin, developed and maintains the class Web site; Lauzon works on the development of materials for the courses, including study guides and activities for conversation labs, and White directed TAs for conversation labs. Lauzon had gone so far as to attend a conference on medical education to see how to improve the course.

The elective is offered for first- and second-year students. It meets for 15 weeks, with a one-hour class and a one-hour language lab.

Zarazúa said he is stunned by the proficiency the students in his first classes obtained in only 30 hours of conversational Spanish.

“I cannot stress enough how surprised I am by their performance at all levels,” he said, “Maybe it’s because you have to be so smart and committed to get into medical school.”

In its third year, the course is now established enough to offer three levels of oral Spanish. Level I Spanish introduces students with no knowledge of Spanish to the language.

By the end, students should be able to conduct a partial Introduction to Clinical Medicine (ICM) interview with a patient. Level II gives more advanced speakers enough medical Spanish to conduct an entire ICM interview. By level III, students should be able to conduct a physical exam in Spanish.

The final exam for all three levels is a mock interview with a patient. Previously, the “patient” was a TA. For the first time this year, a professional standardized patient will be used.