Medical Spanish Course Readies Med Students for Outreach and Rotations

Staff Report

Thursday, October 12th, 2023

Words matter. Especially if you’re a healthcare provider trying to communicate with a patient who doesn’t speak English. 

Abraham Melara (DO ’27), a first year Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine student and a native of Honduras, remembers traveling to the states as a youngster with his mother who was being treated for breast cancer. 

“As a child, I acted as an interpreter because her physicians did not speak our language. It’s very important for me as a medical student to give future physicians the tools to communicate. People who are vulnerable due to a language barrier need the connection.”

Melara, along with Darwin Mendez (DO ‘27), another first year medical student whose parents are from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, are leading a medical Spanish course under the sponsorship of the Latino Student Medical Association. 

Mendez said, “When my parents first came to this country, they struggled to learn English. I feel that the tables are reversed as I’m now in medical school where I’m able to give back and teach classmates the Spanish language.”

He noted that more than one million Spanish speakers call Georgia home. 

“To equip everyone to go out into the community and speak with Hispanic patients is really powerful,” he said.

Close to 100 first and second year Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine students spent their lunch break recently learning medical Spanish. The hour-long class is the first in a series to be offered to DO students.

Maria Reyes (DO ’26), a second year DO student and the vice president of LMSA, said the classes are patterned after classes taught last year. Reyes, a native Ecuadorian, explained that the course, which provides conversational Spanish lessons, creates not only cultural competency, but also a connection with patients.

“Learning the language lets your patients know that you care about them,” she said.

Daniela Gutierrez (DO ’26) the president of LMSA is a second year DO student who has Cuban heritage. She feels that it’s fitting to offer the first class during Hispanic Heritage Month.

The first lesson included the importance of greeting the patient and introducing oneself to the patient and all family members present, the terms for parts of the body, symptoms and possible diagnoses, and letting the patient know that you will call an interpreter if there is a misunderstanding.

Melara and Mendez took turns pronouncing words and phrases for the class and then divided the students into groups where “patients” presented their symptoms and the students practiced conversing with them. 

These lessons are especially important as medical students volunteer in the Gwinnett community where approximately 35,000 families speak Spanish at home, according to Gwinnett County’s Citizen Language Collaboration.  In addition, students are preparing for clinical rotations across the state that occur in their third and fourth years of medical school.