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Growth of Spanish-speaking population creates demand for bilingual health care professionals

The United States now has the world’s second-largest population of Spanish speakers, behind only Mexico. Given the growing number of Spanish-speaking patients, clinics and hospitals find themselves facing an immediate and chronic shortage of bilingual physicians.

This is a serious problem in a field where lives can depend on an accurate exchange of information between doctor and patient, and where the use of interpreters raises privacy concerns.

“I find that a lot of patients don’t feel comfortable communicating with a provider that doesn’t speak Spanish, because they don’t like to bring an interpreter into the room,” says Dr. Victor Dominguez, family practice physician at the Centers for Family Health in Santa Paula, CA. “There are privacy issues associated with that.”

In response to the need, hospitals and health care recruiting agencies nationwide are now actively recruiting bilingual physicians. Increasingly, if a hiring situation comes down to two equally qualified physician or physical therapy applicants, the one who speaks Spanish will be hired over the one who doesn’t.

One solution is for pre-med students and other health care professionals to learn Spanish, through an immersive language-learning experience, like the one offered by Ecela, a Spanish learning program.

The program, which combines South American travel with practical training and instruction, takes a proactive approach to the problem of bilingual health care communication with its health care shadowing programs. Spanish language learning is combined valuable health care field exposure in real medical clinics.

Its six-week program in Chile, for example, includes an opportunity to shadow physicians in Chilean medical clinics, participate in volunteer projects, and become at least conversationally fluent in Spanish through cultural immersion and small-group classes that focus equally on grammar and conversational fluency. Additional medical Spanish instruction gives participants exposure to medical-specific role-playing and vocabulary.

Ecela Medical Spanish students also have the opportunity to deepen their Spanish fluency through cultural experiences. Students may choose to live with Chilean host families for full immersion or in student housing with other program participants. Depending on their interests, students can learn how to make Chilean food, take salsa dance classes, spend a weekend touring Santiago, visit Chile’s mountains and lakes, and tour Chile’s “walking museum,” in nearby Valparaiso, Chile—all in Spanish, and all with other Ecela Medical Spanish students.

“The knowledge and experience I gained while shadowing […] were not only eye-opening but also increased my confidence both in speaking Spanish as well as working in a health care environment,” says Tess Hansen, a Medical Spanish program alumna from University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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