OPINION: Making sure language doesn’t get in the way of health care

Credit: Courtesy of Jeisson Garcia

Credit: Courtesy of Jeisson Garcia

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the consequences of medical miscommunication can be severe.

But unless it impacts you personally, you might not care.

Jeisson Garcia has known for a long time it can be not just harmful, it can be deadly, and he cares. He’s cared for a long time.

That’s why he and a group of classmates at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine launched the Georgia school’s first Medical Spanish Lecture Series meant to prepare future health care providers with the communication skills and background education necessary to treat Spanish-speaking populations.

The course, open to students, faculty, and staff members, will cover such topics as greetings and salutations, patient history, review of systems and symptoms, and patient commands.

If you have to wonder why this is important, you haven’t been paying attention.

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According to the 2018 census, a record 67.3 million U.S. residents spoke a language other than English at home, more than doubling since 1990. Georgia was among the dozen or so states with the largest percentage increase from 1980 to 2018 — up a whopping 952%.

The biggest problem resulting from inadequate medical interpreting, perhaps, is that it discourages people with limited or no English — many of whom are poor and at greater risk for diseases — from seeking care.

Garcia has seen this with his own eyes.

After fleeing his native Colombia and being separated from his family, he told me he sought political asylum in the United States.

It was 2005. Garcia was just 15 years old.

“A family that owned a nursing home allowed me to stay there,” he said.

Like Garcia, who was in Florida at this point, many of the patients were Spanish speakers. They became quick friends and it didn’t take long for him to realize they were suffering and dying because they were unable to communicate with health care personnel.

“It was painful to see my friends and primary support suffer over this language barrier while not being able to do anything about it,” he said.

Garcia would soon leave the home and reunite with his mother, but he never forgot his friends.

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“I wanted to come back and help these people who helped me,” he said.

By the time his father arrived in 2009, Garcia had learned to speak English and graduated from Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, just outside of Orlando.

It was a good thing. His father, Sigifredo Garcia, had kidney stones and needed surgery.

He didn’t speak English and his doctor didn’t speak Spanish. Luckily, Jeisson Garcia could translate.

“Again I saw the disconnect between patient and health care provider,” he said.

In 2009, Garcia was granted political asylum. In 2014, he became a U.S. citizen.

Credit: Courtesy Emory University School of Medicine

Credit: Courtesy Emory University School of Medicine

After becoming an EMT and earning an associate degree, Garcia graduated in 2018 with a degree in health science from the University of Central Florida before enrolling at PCOM to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical science.

Not unlike other medical schools, Garcia said he noticed Spanish was not part of PCOM’s curriculum. He began tutoring students, teaching them medical Spanish during his lunch hour.

That wasn’t good enough. Garcia wanted something more structured and permanent. He shared his idea with one of his professors. He then sought the help of fellow student Danielle Myara, who with him formed the 18-member Medical Spanish Committee.

Early this month, they announced the planned launch of the series of virtual classes. Two days later, the 70 slots had been filled and they had a waiting list.

“It just really shows the need,” Garcia said.

Dr. Ingrid Pinzon agrees.

She is an assistant professor of hospital medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a hospitalist at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

She also shares Garcia’s concern for Spanish-speaking patients.

Studies, Pinzon said, show that poor communication leads to worse quality of care, and a language barrier is one manifestation of this.

“Patients who have a harder time understanding their care providers have a harder time adhering to their medication instructions and following the instructions of the health provider,” she said. “In some situations, patients who have limited English skills may act as if they understand ... even if they don’t, and they are often afraid to communicate how frustrated they feel. It’s often through these longer interactions with patients that it becomes apparent that important messages or instructions weren’t getting through.”

Emory health care providers, she said, have access to interpreters who are educated in medical terminology 24/7.

Still Pinzon, who like Garcia immigrated from Colombia, said patients feel better when the communication is coming from the health provider in Spanish.

“Anything that we can do in this country to help facilitate better communication between health care providers and Spanish-speaking patients will improve care, whether that’s through language education for medical providers or simply trying to increase the number of providers who are bilingual,” she said.

For Garcia, the answer is simple. Integrate Spanish into medical school curriculums. The number of Spanish speakers in this country demands it.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.