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Bridging the Language Gap: New Spanish requirement for nursing students will provide better health care in a changing population


As the demographic look of Texas and the Southwest continues to change, the professional nurses coming out of The University of Texas School of Nursing will now be armed with one more skill—the ability to speak Spanish to their non-English speaking patients.

Stephanie Gomez and her son, Derek, who is receiving a checkup.
Photo by Marsha Miller
The new Spanish language requirement will provide better health care for patients such as those who visit The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing Del Valle Children's Wellness Center, where patients are mostly Spanish speakers. Pictured here are Del Valle resident Stephanie Gomez and her son, Derek, who is receiving a checkup at the center from School of Nursing faculty member Pat Budd, R.N.

Beginning in fall 2002, the school will require junior and senior nursing students to take a one semester three-credit hour course in Spanish.

Dr. Orlando Kelm, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, together with a team of graduate students, has designed Spanish for Health Professionals in order to provide nursing students with basic Spanish language skills to perform specific patient care tasks. Faculty members in the School of Nursing already have begun to take the course to gain background knowledge to assist students in the program.

“Both the health care professional and his or her patient can become frustrated when they can’t communicate with each other,” said Dean Dolores Sands. “This Spanish instruction program will greatly benefit nursing students as they enter their field and provide them with the ability to assist a greater number of patients in a culturally diverse population.

“Through the teaching of specific dialogues and basic phrases in Spanish, the School of Nursing will equip its students with the tools to perform the daily tasks of nurses and better prepare them to give personalized care.”

In the course, students will learn to conduct several types of interviews to obtain information and provide necessary information to patients. The Eligibility Assessment Interview is designed to show students how to ask patients simple background questions. These questions focus on information such as name, address, date of birth, living arrangements and insurance.

Melanie Bloom, a teaching asst. in the College of Education, helps Patsy Rider, R.N., clinical nursing instructor, with Spanish vocabulary.
Photo by Marsha Miller
Melanie Bloom, a teaching asst. in the College of Education, helps Patsy Rider, R.N., clinical nursing instructor, with Spanish vocabulary. The School of Nursing faculty, many of whom are also practicing registered nurses, are taking classes this semester. The Spanish language required classes for nursing students begin this fall.

The Health Risk Assessment interview allows students to discuss information specific to women’s health issues. This information includes obtaining the medical history of the patient and her family, birth control and mammography, along with instructing patients to perform breast self-examinations. Students also will learn to ask questions that focus on the patient’s social and emotional support system, community services and financial resources. Finally, the course will instruct students how to ask a patient questions about availability and location in order to make future appointments.

“Texas is a little behind in preparing individuals to deal with the changing population,” said Kelm, who also coordinates the business language programs for both Spanish and Portuguese. “The course is designed for students with little or no background in Spanish. We’re not really teaching them how to speak Spanish as much as we are how to do certain tasks in Spanish. By the end of the semester, I think they will be surprised at how much they have learned. Some may want to go on and study more.”

Randy Walker, president of the university’s Nursing Student’s Association, believes learning Spanish is a must for nursing students, and for that matter, anyone in the health care profession.

“I can tell you firsthand that there have been numerous occasions, during my clinical rotations in area hospitals, that the ability to speak Spanish to my patients would have made all the difference,” he said.

Walker recently was doing a rotation at the Del Valle Children’s Wellness Center, a clinic sponsored and run by the university and staffed by nurses and nurse practitioners from the School of Nursing.

“The whole point of my visit to the center was to do an assessment on a child six years or younger," he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, and all the families that I came in contact with were Spanish-speaking only.

“The knowledge that I would have gained from a nursing Spanish course would have allowed me to complete my assignment that afternoon, as well as make the families feel more comfortable. It makes a world of difference, in situations like that particular afternoon, to have the ability to say to a patient or family, ‘do you prefer that I speak in English or Spanish?’”

By Nancy Neff

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  Updated 2008 October 9
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