Health Care, En Enspanol | Beaufort County Now | Group helps prepare ECU medical students to serve Spanish-speaking patients

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Natalie Sayewich.


Dr. Irma Corral, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Brody School of Medicine, serves as the medical Spanish interest groupís faculty advisor. Here, she instructs medical students on working with interpreters in a health care setting. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)


    As students in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University learn to earn their patients' trust and look for ways to better serve the underserved, many are honing their Spanish skills to meet the needs of the state's rising Hispanic population.

    The Hispanic population in North Carolina grew by 40 percent from 2010-2020, and now represents 11 percent of the state's population, according to U.S. Census data. With many of those unable to speak English fluently, when they have a health care issue, it can be difficult for members of this community to feel fully comfortable speaking with and understanding their providers. For providers, it can cause a serious barrier to ensuring that patients have informed consent about available treatments.

    Students and faculty in ECU's Division of Health Sciences are working to improve their skills in Spanish to make these patients more comfortable in the health care setting and raise the quality of care they're able to provide.

    "The amount of Spanish speaking patients around here - it's a lot. Knowing all the medical (terminology) is already very difficult, so adding a communication barrier makes it even more difficult," said Jonathan Mendez, a medical Spanish interpreter with ECU Physicians, an ECU undergraduate student and an aspiring physician. "So, if you can break that, or at least help with that barrier, you can provide a much better service."

    Students from the Brody School of Medicine recently revived an extracurricular medical Spanish interest group designed to help current and future health care providers close the language gap and improve communication with Hispanic patients by speaking with them in their native language. The group meets monthly in the Health Sciences Student Center to practice speaking Spanish, with a special focus on medical terminology.

    Emily Parks is a second-year medical student from Raleigh and president of the Medical Spanish Interest Group at the Brody School of Medicine. Parks began learning Spanish as a high school student and was able to gain more experience with the language through volunteer opportunities as an undergraduate, but the rigors of medical school made it difficult for her to find time to maintain these activities. After speaking with some of her Brody classmates, she realized there were other students with a similar working knowledge of the language who were interested in improving their Spanish skills and using them in their medical practices.

    "When I was talking to my classmates and realizing this was a need that I wanted to pursue, I realized that it was advanced Spanish speakers, both native and non-native speakers (who were interested)," Parks said. "I think we're comfortable having a conversation in Spanish and we can communicate well, but when it comes to medical terminology and technical terms, or even just trying to rephrase something to help a patient understand, that's where we need practice to be better providers in the future."

    Though the group was initially intended for more advanced Spanish speakers, Parks and the other students leading the effort have found that there's interest among novice speakers as well. Although there are medical Spanish courses offered to health care students at ECU, the group offers another avenue to practice these skills.

    The group's faculty advisor and Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the Brody School of Medicine Dr. Irma Corral, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine, shared her enthusiasm for the students' attention to this issue.

    "This is a great example of the heart of our Brody students in that they really care about providing good clinical care to our local community," Corral said. "When you think about someone who has a language barrier, that's a really difficult place to be when you're having a health care emergency, or a significant chronic care issue that needs attention."

    Corral understands this need firsthand and stressed that while providing opportunities for native English speaking health care providers to learn Spanish is an important step, it is not enough to address the needs of the Spanish-speaking population. That is why she said it's important for Hispanic and Latino community members to understand that they have a right to have a certified medical interpreter with them, and that the service is free at the Brody School of Medicine and ECU Physicians.

    "One of my earliest memories in health care is serving as an interpreter for my family, and at the time that was still a practice that was allowed," Corral said. "It still happens from time to time in urgent situations, but we're really moving away from that as a health care field because we recognize that is not sufficient. It's important that we have trained, certified medical interpreters in these settings.

    "I was asked to tell my mother that she had cancer when I was just a child, and that was an event that really stayed with me. ... She didn't end up having cancer, but it was probably information that was inappropriate for me to have at the time, and it really stayed with me in terms of how vulnerable populations are when they don't speak the native language in the country where they live. That was actually the event that inspired me to consider becoming an educator in medicine and is the beginning of my story."

    Corral came to eastern North Carolina because she saw a need for Spanish-speaking clinical psychologists in the area.

    "I'm one of only a handful and up until a few years ago I was the only one," she said. "It has been my pleasure to be here to be able to serve the Latino community, especially in mental health care, when what you have to say is very sensitive, you want to be able to do that in your native language, if at all possible."
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