PA students partner with seniors to refine Spanish skills

Communication between a healthcare provider and a patient is essential for both parties, but sometimes there may be a language barrier. Baylor College of Medicine’s School of Allied Health Sciences has been addressing this issue with much success through the Physician Assistant Spanish Elective Course.

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States with a large Spanish-speaking population, so knowing medical Spanish is helpful not only during medical training but also in the future as a healthcare professional. The Physician Assistant Program in the School of Allied Health Sciences at Baylor recognized this in the 1990s when they received a training grant to affect change in the physician assistant curriculum. Though the grant ended many years ago, the School has continued the Physician Assistant Spanish Elective course to this day.

The two-week elective takes place after physician assistant students have completed their didactic training and are about to begin their clinical training, a fitting time to work on their spoken Spanish. Directed by Dr. Guadalupe Quintanilla, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, the elective offers a unique opportunity for students to work directly with Spanish-speaking seniors in the Houston community to develop their Spanish vocabulary.

“I have three physicians in my family, so I’m aware of the need for effective communication,” said Quintanilla, who has taught a similar program with the Houston Police Department for 37 years.

Diana Romero, administrative coordinator in the School of Allied Health Sciences, first conducts an assessment with students before the course begins to evaluate their Spanish skills.

“The elective is personal for me, because I was the translator with the doctor for my parents at a young age,” Romero said. “The seniors are like my parents, who didn’t speak English.”

Students receive a vocabulary book and then, through a collaboration with the BakerRipley House, they are paired with a senior citizen portraying a patient to learn how to conduct an interview in Spanish. The entire course takes place at the BakerRipley House with the seniors.

“It’s a way of putting students as close to a real interaction as we can,” Quintanilla said.

As for the seniors, they look forward to helping with this program every year.

“It’s a part of their day that’s important to them,” said Carl Fasser, director of the Physician Assistant Program at Baylor. “They show their pride in the accomplishment of the student that they helped.”

“They love the students. They take pictures together and the seniors put the pictures up in their home. We try to switch the students and seniors around so the students get used to different tones, but we have a hard time switching them around because the seniors take ownership of the student that they are helping,” Quintanilla said.

She works to bring in young children who are in summer camp at BakerRipley as well so that the physician assistant students can get used to varying speeds of Spanish speakers. She also brings in guest speakers to teach students more about the various Spanish-speaking cultures.

At the end of two weeks, the physician assistant students take a written exam as well as a final clinical skills exam with a standardized patient, after they have a fiesta with the seniors at BakerRipley.

“In two weeks I was able to read and write simple sentences in Spanish and perform an entire physical exam using Spanish as my only form of communication,” said Aubrey Meissnet, one of the physician assistant students who completed the elective. “I feel I gained a strong foundation and a desire to continue my Spanish learning experience. I am more eager now than ever to be able to speak Spanish with my patients.”

Meissnet could not credit the seniors at BakerRipley enough.

“They really took us under their wings and they were so proud of how much we had learned by the end of those two weeks. There was so much support for us it was incredible,” she said.

I was skeptical before I took this elective, because I doubted that it would make a difference in my ability to use medical Spanish. After all, I have been trying to learn Spanish for some time now. But I admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The opportunity to speak daily with native Spanish speakers, to review over and over again new vocabulary and conjugations, and to even have a tutor that could help me cover the material at a pace and complexity that was right for me, definitely helped to take my Spanish abilities to another level. I’m confident that this will help me as I move into my next rotation, and I am looking forward to using my medical Spanish at a pediatric clinic that primarily serves Spanish speaking communities.”

– Kellee English, PA student