Winston-Salem program works to decrease language barrier for doctors, patients

Piedmont Triad News

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — When people are sick, they go to a doctor and explain how they’re feeling and what’s bothering them.

Many people are able to understand what their physician tells them is wrong and how they can manage it.

But that’s not the case for a growing number of people in the U.S. and the Triad who don’t speak or understand English well enough to get the proper medical care.

At the Wake Forest School of Medicine, they’re working to fix that problem.

MAESTRO, or Medical Applied Education in Spanish Through Training, Researching and Overlearning, is a four-year medical Spanish certificate program.

The program teaches medical students how to translate the medical education they’re getting in English to Spanish, focusing on language and cultural differences.

“At the downtown health plaza where I see patients…I’m a pediatrician, and I see pediatric patients there. Two-thirds of our patients prefer care in Spanish,” Dr. Tiffany Shin said.

She’s leading a group of 19 students at the medical school to tackle what they’re calling a huge gap in medicine.

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 57 million [Hispanic people] in the United States. Of those people, 40% have difficulty with English proficiency,” Shin said.

Each student involved has their own reasons for participating.

“I want to work in the emergency room where there’s a large volume of Spanish-speaking patients,” said second-year medical student Ryan Morgan.

Morgan’s mother’s family came from Cuba in the 1960s. He told FOX8 he’s always wanted to be a doctor and incorporate his heritage in his journey.

“I have very early memories of my first experiences in medical care in a clinic center towards Spanish-speaking patients and families,” added Sophia Alvarado, another second-year medical student who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household.

They all are concerned with what can happen when a doctor and a patient don’t speak the same language.

“There’s an increased risk of errors. Errors can rally impact patients when they’re in the hospital and impact their long-term health outcomes,” Shin said. “Our hope, by training the next generation of doctors how to care effectively for Spanish-speaking patients…is this will help address health inequities and improve long term health of this population.”

Things can get lost in translation, even with an interpreter or translating tool available.

“It’s very important for me to be able to communicate effectively to [my patients] and for them to understand what I’m saying,” Alvarado said.

Shin told FOX8 there’s already hesitancy from many people who don’t speak English when it comes to seeking medical care.

She hopes with this program, they’ll be able to encourage people to get help and make a difference.

“In a life-threatening situation, to bring an interpreter down, or get one of the iPads we use to translate for patients who speak Spanish, that’s added time,” Morgan said. “If you’re able to get right to the point and speak to the patient immediately, that could be lifesaving.”

When the MAESTRO program launched in 2019, it was able to accommodate nine students. As the program continues to grow, it is expanding to include even more medical students to help meet the demand.

Shin told FOX8 there’s a growing demand for healthcare providers with this type of training.

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