Facing the fallout of a COVID-19 diagnosis alone in a hospital room can be an excruciating challenge for anyone.
But especially for those who don’t speak the same language as their physicians and nurses.
According to doctoral student Fernando Gonzalez, a Navy ensign participating in the Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program that pays 100% of his medical school tuition costs, the pandemic has further stressed health care translation and interpretation resources that already run short of an escalating need.
Sometimes, Hispanic patients could only catch the ear of phoned-in interpreters in the wee hours of the morning to hear the prognosis of a malady, he said. Bedside interpreters can also be difficult to find.
And that’s just one of many barriers to health care for the Upstate’s growing Spanish-speaking patients, said Gonzalez, who discovered during his third year at University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, one out of every three patients he worked with at a local hospital came from a Hispanic background.
“In my three years here in Greenville, I realized that the Hispanic population — that there was a large number of immigrants coming in and they continue to increase as we speak,” Gonzalez said. “That’s reflective of the country as a whole. By the year 2040 … a third of the country is going to be Hispanic or of Hispanic descent of some sort.”
Other hurdles include transportation and preventative education, which Gonzalez has tried to address through efforts with local health care providers to set up a free clinic on Saturdays at Grace Church and later, in conjunction with the Taylor’s Free Medical Clinic.
As for language barriers, however, Gonzalez cuts to the source: what medical schools can be doing to prepare their students — chiefly what USC School of Medicine can be doing to prepare the next generation of doctors for the challenge ahead through a four-year Spanish language curriculum program.
“As a school we can reverse that (barrier) from a different angle … so I thought to myself, it’s one thing to learn a language but another thing to learn a culture,” he said. “And one thing is to learn by textbook, but it goes a long way to be able to have this face-to-face experience that will definitely make an impact on everybody’s lives. It goes a long way when a clinician knows a little bit of the language, knows a little bit of the culture — an extra effort to make a patient comfortable. Even if you know a couple of words, it really goes a long way for the Hispanic culture.”
Especially since a number of USC School of Medicine Greenville graduates stay in the Upstate area post-graduation, he said.
So, in partnership with Dr. Mary Rippon, a retired physician and UofSC School of Medicine staff member, and her sister Maria Rippon, a Spanish professor at Furman University — and with the endorsement of other faculty — the Navy ensign has lobbied the school’s curriculum committee to extend an existing elective Spanish language program led by the Rippon sisters to something more intensive.
He is open to a variety of directions at this point for the program and said the school has been receptive to the idea.
Suggested components of the program could include a self-paced language course similar to Rosetta Stone and lists of vocabulary and common phrases specific to the health care arena in addition to regular English classes, but what Gonzalez emphasized the most was hands-on, face-to-face experience in community care.
During the first two years, he suggested that students could either volunteer time with the EMS — as he did during a stint in Charleston after attending The Citadel — or work at a free clinic where they would be paired up with Spanish-speaking physicians or clinicians. Students already at an advanced proficiency level could be given resources to help prepare them for Prisma Health’s bilingual employee test, perhaps in collaboration with Spanish and health care programs at partnering universities, he said.
“With the increasing language diversity of the population as well as the increasing interest among our students in advancing language skills to be able to communicate directly with family, there has been interest in expanding the medical Spanish program,” Dr. Julie Linton, assistant dean for admission at the USC School of Medicine Greenville and associate professor of pediatrics, told GSA Business Report.
At this point, Linton said the curriculum is still an emerging initiative, limited by the time constraints of a medical program already tightly packed with medical training, but she hopes the program will come to fruition, especially with her own experience as a bilingual health care provider in the Upstate.
“We are a very student-driven school, so when our students lift up their passions to the administration, we try to meet those needs as best as we can with support and encouragement,” said Linton, adding that the ability to communicate directly to a patient’s family can make all the difference.