Spanish Class Aims to Cure Language Gap in Medicine

OGDEN, Utah – This spring, Weber State University is offering a new course designed to bridge the language barrier that often separates health care providers and their patients.

Spanish for Medical Personnel is a course intended to teach key Spanish words and phrases related to the medical field to students pursuing careers in health care. As the Hispanic population grows, health care workers increasingly cite difficulties diagnosing and treating Spanish-speaking patients.

"In emergency situations, people often revert to their native language, and, under high anxiety, understand less of their second language," said Shelley Conroy, dean of WSU's Dr. Ezekiel R. Dumke College of Health Professions. "If the health care professional can understand and communicate some basic medical terms in Spanish for urgent situations, it allows more valuable time and resources for providing good care."

Assistant Spanish professor David Nielson, who will teach the course, said the idea for the class emerged from a series of seminars the Spanish Club held last fall focusing on Spanish for professionals. Seminar topics focused on language issues in law enforcement, social work, education and medicine. Nielson said the presentations for medical personnel were well attended.

"The traditional curriculum approach in teaching languages focuses on language acquisition, literature, history and culture," Nielson said. "With a practical approach, students are looking for information they can use in their lives and careers." He said the differing philosophies are sparking debates among foreign language faculty nationwide.

The WSU course will include practice in going over X-rays, counseling, receptionist and patient problems. Nielson said the class will rely on a mixture of textbook, vocabulary lists, and dialogue comprehension and role playing exercises.

Judging by the response to the initial offering, the course is in demand. All 25 seats for the class this semester have been filled, with students pursuing degrees in health professions comprising half the enrollment. Students are required to possess basic conversational skills in Spanish prior to taking the course.

Nielson said he would like to see the class become a regular part of the curriculum, similar to one offered for students in business. He's also interested in offering a variation on the course, tailored to health professionals currently in the field who do not speak Spanish.


David Nielson, assistant Spanish professor
801-626-6184 ·

Shelley Conroy, dean Dumke College of Health Professions


John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 ·