University of Pittsburgh

Spanish Language Skills

Spanish Language Instruction For Medical Students:
A Modular and Longitudinal Curriculum

Background

Faculty and students recognize that the healthcare community must be prepared to communicate with Spanish speaking patients, but it has been challenging to practically and effectively introduce language instruction into an already packed medical school curriculum. This initiative provides highly motivated students with a spectrum of level-appropriate opportunities for learning Spanish.

Implementation

Four major activities comprise the core components of this elective series:

Basic Spanish for Medical Students

Held in July after 1st year, this elementary level course helps learners with no prior Spanish language skills to acquire skills in pronunciation, vocabulary and conversation. It uses medical conversation and vocabulary as the vehicle for acquisition of these fundamentals. Two 2-hour sessions each week are supplemented by independent study using a web-based instructional program specifically designed for this four week course.

Practical Medical Conversations in Spanish

The principle underlying this elective is that students most effectively improve their conversational skills by practicing speaking Spanish. This 5 session mini-elective is designed to build on an existing introductory-level background in Spanish language skills. The course sessions use those basic skills and apply them while improving conversation skills, building toward the goal of being able to conduct a problem-focused medical interview with a Spanish-speaking patient. Students learn how to interview patients (in Spanish) about common medical conditions by practicing these conversations with native speakers. Beyond learning the vocabulary and sentence structure of these conversations, students also learn and practice strategies to communicate with patients when the two parties cannot quite understand each other – a common problem for novices in any language.

Senior Clinical Electives with Spanish Immersion

These 4 week clinical senior electives are offered in partnership with other US medical schools, at domestic locations with a substantial proportion of Spanish speaking patients. Students benefit both from a solid clinical rotation and from pre-planned opportunities to use their Spanish language skills in settings with ample opportunity and backup.

Salud Clinic Volunteer Programs

Students may volunteer at Salud and other local clinic settings that serve Spanish speaking patients.

Early Impact

The initial Basic Spanish course offering was heavily subscribed by students, and interest in enrollment continues to swell. The summer after 1st year is an ideal time to undertake a basic language study. Students may have daytime commitments to research or clinical experiences, but have ample personal time to commit to intensive language study, in contrast to the paucity of time and attention available during the academic year. They also have already mastered a new vocabulary of thousands of biomedical terms, and are on the steeply ascending side of their ability to assimilate new information. Student interest in the subsequent programs is high.

Medical students can successfully undertake Spanish language instruction, when it is conducted in formats and schedules that adapt to students’ schedules and needs. These electives provide a valuable opportunity for students to customize their learning and develop language skills that can serve them throughout their careers.

Participants in Curriculum Planning

John F. Mahoney, MD, Alison Howells, Diego Chaves-Gnecco MD, MPH