Post Doc En qué le puedo ayudar?
How can I help you?
Por qué ha venido a la clínica hoy?
Why have you come
to the clinic today?
Qué remedios o tratamientos ha usado para este problema?
What remedies or treatments
have you used for this problem?
Es el problema muy grave?
Is the problem very serious?
Sabe usted por qué está en el hospital?
Do you know why you
are in the hospital?
During a hospital preceptorship his first year at Weill Cornell, Patrick DeGregorio ’ 18 got a glimmer of
how a language barrier can impede a doctor’s
work. After a Spanish speaker, patched in by
telephone, helped an attending communicate
during an exam, the patient thanked the interpreter—but not the doctor. For DeGregorio, that
small moment underscored the distance that
the inability to speak directly can create
between patient and physician, and he found
the implications worrisome. “It might preclude
you from asking the question you need to ask,”
he says, “and getting a candid answer from your
patient about their history.”
That’s why DeGregorio, along with about fifty other students in the
MD and physician assistant programs, took medical Spanish last
semester. The nine-week courses—divided into beginning, intermediate, and advanced sections—have been offered since 1998. In the
introductory group, students learn the terms for many body parts,
plus key phrases and common verbs needed for taking histories. In
probing cardiovascular issues, for instance, they learn how to ask
whether the patient is experiencing shortness of breath (“falta de
aire con actividad”) or whether they suffer from sleep apnea (“
desper-tarse durante el sueño con falta de aire”).
The ability to speak medical Spanish is in high demand in New
York City, where Hispanics make up more than a quarter of the pop-
ulation. And as instructor Michael Shane tells his students, a little
conversation can go a long way. “I’ve never heard of anybody say-
ing a patient got angry because their doctor tried to speak Spanish,”
says Shane, a medical Spanish specialist who also teaches at
Columbia and New York Medical College. “They might giggle, but
they are more likely to try to teach you.”
A few weeks into the intro Spanish course, which was held on
Wednesday evenings in spring 2015, students sit at desks arranged
in a horseshoe shape, trying to reply to Shane’s conversational
prompts. The atmosphere is designed to be relaxed and non-
judgmental, says course organizer Luis Romero ’ 18. “To learn a lan-
guage you have to stop being so nervous about making yourself
look foolish,” says Romero, a Cuban native eager to expand his
grasp of colloquial variations among Hispanophones. “Here, we all
make ourselves look like fools from time to time. If you don’t, it
means you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.”
At the course’s intermediate and advanced levels, students not
only delve more deeply into the language, but talk about cultural
norms. Establishing rapport with patients, they learn, can often be
a matter of small courtesies, like asking where someone comes from.
(“¿De dónde es usted?”) And with more and more students interested
in language proficiency, such offerings may someday be expanded
to include other tongues such as French and Mandarin, says faculty
advisor Madelon Finkel, PhD, professor of clinical healthcare policy
and research. “Anything that will help patients feel comfortable is a
good thing, so even with pathetic Spanish you’re showing that
you’re trying to speak,” says Paul McClelland ’ 18. “As a medical pro-
fessional, obviously you’re competent at what you do—but even
super-smart doctors can’t speak every language.”
— Ken Stier
future clinicians can
ask, “¿Cómo está?”