One of the keys to improving your communication with your Spanish-speaking patients and to be able to feel confident during the medical encounter is to have a good level of Medical Spanish.
While general Spanish focuses on learning grammatical structures and vocabulary from everyday life, medical Spanish courses focus on medical and health terminology, vocabulary, and commonly used phrases in medical settings.
Why is important to learn medical Spanish
Feeling confident with your Spanish-speaking patients, can bring many advantages when working in a hospital, medical center, urgent care, or clinic.
Your patients will feel closer to you and will have more confidence.
You could work without an interpreter, and if you don’t feel qualified for it, at least you will understand part of the conversation between the interpreter and the patients and you could have a small informal conversation with them.
10 tips to improve your medical Spanish
#1 You don’t need to be advanced in Spanish to learn medical Spanish
Don’t worry if you don’t have an advanced level of Spanish. Don’t wait to have mastered the basic vocabulary and structures of general Spanish to fully immerse yourself in learning medical Spanish .
You can start from day one learning Spanish but focused on the medical field.
When you learn a foreign language, the best way to do it is from a communicative approach.
Most Spanish courses start with situations of daily life such as the city, the restaurant, travel, but you do not need any of this to communicate with your patients.
Also, to successfully pass a basic Spanish course, you will be asked to learn and understand many grammatical concepts and verb tenses that you will not need on a day-to-day basis with your Spanish-speaking patients. They, as well as you, need to understand and be understood. Your goal is to achieve a more fluid communication and to break down language barriers, not to pass an official Spanish exam.
#2 Medical Spanish is not only medical terminology
You need to communicate with your patient, not make a professional presentation at a health professionals conference.
Some people may think that the main difference between general and medical Spanish is that the style of the Spanish for healthcare professionals is much more technical than that of general Spanish, but that is not true.
When learning medical Spanish it is important to learn all the medical terminology as you would use it in English. Even if you feel very comfortable with your medical Spanish, try to avoid some of the more technical expressions in Spanish, especially if you’re addressing the patient or the patient’s family. Phrases like this could make you seem very distant and difficult to understand.
Besides, most medical terminology has its roots in Greek or Latin and they sound very similar in both languages. You don’t need to translate it to Spanish, you need to translate it to patients’ non-technical language. If you are going to use very technical language, patients won’t understand you even if they are English speakers.
- Let me give you a couple of examples:
- Tetralogy of Fallot/Tetralogía de Fallot: The patient has no clue of what that means either in English or in Spanish. Try this: enfermedad cardíaca con la que ha nacido el bebé. La sangre que sale del corazón no puede llevar oxigeno por todo el cuerpo.
- Gastrostomy Tube (G-tube)/ Tubo de gastrostomía. Sounds similar in both languages, right? Still the patient doesn’t understand what that is. Try to explain with easier vocabulary: es un tubo que le vamos a poner mediante una cirugía para que los alimentos, los líquidos y los medicamentos lleguen directamente al estómago.
Always try to use vocabulary that your patient can understand.
#3 Listen to medical Spanish anywhere and anytime
If you don’t have time or the budget for a medical Spanish course at the moment, the best way to get used to medical Spanish is to listen.
The more you listen, the better. Above all, try to listen to conversations between the family members, interpreters, as well as at the workplace in general. There are many employees that are native Spanish-speakers, and they constantly have conversations in Spanish.
Watch shows and movies in Spanish. Listening permanently to the Spanish language will make you obtain a more complete immersion in the language. It is important to take advantage of the various tv shows and movies that happen in the medical setting. There are many tv shows that are linked to the field of medicine and that contain a large amount of vocabulary that can be learned.
Try to watch the programs in Spanish or with the subtitles in Spanish because that way you can recognize the words better, as well as improve your listening skills.
#4 Use medical websites free resources in Spanish
In addition to signing up for a specific medical Spanish course, it can also be very beneficial for your learning to you take advantage of practical. Try with real newspapers from any country in the Spanish speaking world. You can also check several American websites with all the information available in Spanish. Reading can help you expand your vocabulary, expressions, and structures common in medical Spanish.
I get a lot of resources for my classes here:
- Medlineplus https://medlineplus.gov/spanish/
- Kidshealth https://kidshealth.org/es/parents.html
- CDC https://www.cdc.gov/spanish/
On the other hand, almost every big source of information like NYT, WP, CNN… has an option to have everything translated into Spanish.
You can not only read but also watch videos. Remember to add the words español or in Spanish and google will take you where you need to be.
#5 Make flash cards with all the new vocabulary you learn
One of the best tips that will help you pick up a lot of medical Spanish vocabulary is this: when you read, don’t just try to find the general idea of the text, but also stop to look for new terms.
Once you identify all these words that are new to you, try to create your own glossary that you can review or use every time you work with patients in Spanish. This can be used when speaking with patients, for small talk, or to perform the medical interview.
There are several apps you can use that have everything handy on your phone. My favorite ones are:
#6 Sign up for a medical Spanish course
Medical Spanish courses focus on skills that can be applied in the medical encounter, and, on vocabulary that you might need during a general medical conversation, history taking, physical exam, diagnosis, tests, plan and, follow up.
Even if you have a good level of Spanish, you may not have mastered the vocabulary and structures of medical Spanish, and this can make you uncomfortable in some typical medical situations.
A medical Spanish course will help you learn how to handle these scenarios and feel much more comfortable during the whole medical encounter, from admissions and triage to family meetings, discharge, etc.
#7 Use short sentences and yes/no questions
A good way to associate the meaning of new words and expressions is by using short sentences. To do this, you can start with sentences with simple structures and when you are more comfortable, you can use more complex structures.
Try starting with yes/no questions. If you use open-ended questions, you are likely to miss out on the patient’s response.
Spanish-speaking patients tend to go around the phrase many times before giving the specific answer. Or they can give you a lot of small details that are not relevant to your question.
#8 Find a partner to practice
If you know someone who works in the medical field and is fluent in Spanish, practice your conversational skills with them. In this way, learning becomes more dynamic and fun and motivation is not lost.
If you are taking a medical Spanish course with other classmates, try to find some time to practice the medical situations of the lessons. Practice a role-play where one is the patient and the other is the provider.
How to learn Medical Spanish if you don’t have time
You are probably very busy and have enough already on your daily schedule.
Even if you are really determined and ready to learn medical Spanish it could feel like an impossible task right now. But you can learn medical Spanish no matter how busy you are.
Think of all the times that you have mini breaks during your day. What do you do? You most likely check your phone. You might open social media, read emails, or check the weather for tomorrow. During these mini breaks, it would be in your best interest to use this time to advance your medical Spanish proficiency.
Find an app, a tutor, or a medical Spanish course that can be accesses from your phone and takes less than 10-15 minutes a day.
Learn the most useful expressions in medical Spanish
Whether you are going to do a medical interview in Spanish, going to start a conversation with a patient’s family, help a patient when checking in, or just greeting a patient and introducing yourself, take good note of these expressions. These are typical in medical encounters as they will be of great help to you in any situation that comes your way:
Hola soy ___, encantado de conocerlo /Hi, my name is ___, nice to meet you.
¿Qué le trae hoy por aquí? /What brings you here today?
¿Cómo puedo ayudarlo hoy? / How can I help you today?
¿Tiene dolor? /Are you in pain?
Lo siento/I’m sorry
Necesito hacerle unas preguntas/ I need to ask you some questions
Voy a hacerle un examen/I am going to examine you
Ya casi terminamos/ We are almost done
Respire profundo/Take a deep breath
Todo se ve bien/ Everything looks good