Campus News

June 21, 2010

Med students get Spanish immersion

Medical students, led by Flavia Mercado (far right), learned practical Spanish in Puerto Rico. Credit: Geoff Kelly

As a first-year student in Emory’s School of Medicine, Geoff Kelly was still trying to decipher a mammoth medical vocabulary in his native tongue when he signed up for a language immersion trip to Puerto Rico over spring break.

Suddenly, Kelly was conducting rounds in rapid-fire Spanish, flustered but determined to improve his intermediate language skills.

“I developed an appreciation for doctors who can seamlessly switch from Spanish to English,” says Kelly, one of seven medical students who spent a week in April at the Ponce School of Medicine in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The inaugural trip developed out of conversations between Emory School of Medicine’s Spanish Interest Group — a collection of about 50 students who meet weekly to practice Spanish language — and two visiting Ponce students at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Flavia Mercado, medical director of the Department of Multicultural Affairs and the International Medical Center at Grady, led the trip. She helped organize activities ranging from a mock patient interaction conducted entirely in Spanish to a workshop on the most common illnesses found in Puerto Rico. Students heightened their cultural sensitivity through lectures and planned excursions, shadowing internists and pediatricians at hospitals, and by rooming and studying alongside their Ponce counterparts.

“The Ponce faculty were very accommodating,” says Mercado, also an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. “They took us in as if we were students there for the week.”

Discussions have already begun to repeat the immersion trip next spring and invite Ponce students to Emory for a reciprocal exchange.

While Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, residents there have less exposure to modern medicine than in the U.S., says Kelly, which means that building trust between doctor and patient becomes paramount. Kelly witnessed Puerto Rican doctors spending ample time getting to know their patients and explaining treatment options. For many of the Emory students, it was their first time encountering dengue fever, a disease caused by a mosquito-borne virus found in the tropics, and Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder with a very low rate of survival.

The cultural sensitivity and language skills gained by the budding doctors will help them better serve diverse communities at home and abroad, says Mercado. Several students plan to pursue careers in global health or work with immigrant communities in the U.S. after graduation.

“A lot of our students had gone overseas or studied Spanish in high school or college,” she says. “What they wanted most was to become more comfortable speaking Spanish in a medical environment.”

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