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South Carolina Honors College

  • medical students with masks examining a "dummy" person.

Honors Cool Course: Spanish for Healthcare Providers

Experienced instructor Carla Swygert teaches Honors SPAN 360: Spanish for Healthcare Professionals. The class combines a Spanish and medical terminology class in a way that teaches Honors students everything they need to know about interacting with a Spanish-speaking patient. In addition to learning technical information and cultural etiquette, students also get to participate in a community service component by volunteering at local medical clinics.   

Carla shares with us the opportunities students have through SPAN 360 and why it is her favorite class to teach.   

How is this class unique compared to typical classes geared toward healthcare students?    
SPAN 360 is taught in Spanish. The students learn medical vocabulary used both in Spain and in Latin America and then apply that vocabulary to clinical situations and dialogues that we cover in class. They learn how to be culturally competent when dealing with Hispanic patients and learn the basics of being a medical interpreter.

The students research and write short essays on the main illnesses common among the Hispanic population in the US or about different healthcare systems in various countries in Latin America. They create brochures on illnesses and medical conditions, and they even visit the Center for Simulation and Experiential Learning, a Simulation Lab in the Nursing school where they can diagnose patient simulators (manikins). As you can see, this is not just a medical terminology class; it is so much more than that!   

How do you balance the language and healthcare-related aspects of the course?    
When the students are learning the medical terminology in Spanish, I also ask them to explain to me certain medical procedures, illnesses, treatments, etc. Some students know what those terms mean, while others do not. It is always very interesting to see the students trying their hardest to explain in Spanish what an oophorectomy is or what an EKG consists of. At the beginning of each semester, almost every student struggles to explain these medical terms in Spanish, but towards the end of April, everybody does a great job! Not only do their Spanish skills improve, but their medical knowledge does as well!   

What is the community service component of this class?    
My SPAN 360 students shadow the medical interpreters at Lexington Medical Center, a large hospital located about 20 minutes from campus. Even during the pandemic, my students have been fortunate enough to shadow the medical interpreters in every department at the hospital, except for the ER (due to COVID-19 restrictions). I have students who have seen a CT scan, a cardiologist visit, a pre-op consultation, or a check-up on a mom who just had a baby. The students love this opportunity because they see first-hand what we learn in class. I think there is nothing better than learning something in the classroom and then seeing it unfold in real life. Some students also volunteer at local clinics like The Good Samaritan Clinic, located in West Columbia, or the Free Clinic on Harden Street.   

How is the experience impactful for students and the community?    
Most of my students in SPAN 360 are on their way to starting a career in medicine, nursing, or public health. In class, they learn how to become culturally competent, and they realize that the Hispanic population acts a certain way when they go to the doctor. It is important to be able to communicate with your patients in the same language, but it is even more important to understand their cultural values and beliefs. Once the students take SPAN 360, they understand those differences, and they can apply their knowledge to the care they may give a Hispanic patient in the future.

I like to think that these future doctors or nurses will have better bedside manners because they are aware of how difficult it is for Hispanics to have access to the healthcare system. They will not judge them if those patients have taken natural remedies, are late to an appointment, or even if the patient does not look them in the eye. All these are cultural traits that my students learn, understand and respect because they know the meaning behind them.  

Why do you think it is important that honors students participate in courses like this?    
I think service-learning courses are a great opportunity to see what you learn in the classroom applied in real life. You can learn all the theory you want, but you will internalize what you learn when you see it applied to a real-life situation. My students learn how to treat Hispanic patients, but when they see them at the hospital... that is when everything just "clicks."   

How do you see this class helping students reach their career goals in the future?  
Most of my SPAN 360 students are either minoring or majoring in Spanish, and it is a proven fact that, when applying for a job, the candidate that knows Spanish will be hired over the one who doesn't. This happens in the medical field but also in business, education, retail, and many other fields.

My Honor students are always intelligent, hard-working and ambitious young men and women, and by taking SPAN 360 and other service-learning or professional courses like SPAN 305 (Working with Hispanic Clients) or SPAN 316 (Business Spanish), they have a big advantage over other candidates that are applying for Medical School or Graduate School. The Spanish they learn in these courses is catered to their future profession, and that is what students like and, actually, demand nowadays.    

This is one of the most popular honors classes; why do you think so many students are interested in it?   
I think it is a combination of everything. SPAN 360 is my favorite class to teach out of the four courses I teach every semester, and I think the students can sense that. On the very first day, I always tell my students that I am not concerned about their grade but rather about how much they are going to learn. The grade (although still important) comes second. The class is taught in a relaxed environment, and there is a sense of camaraderie in the classroom that I do not see in other courses I teach. Everybody in that room is interested in improving their Spanish skills, so the students also bring a great attitude to the classroom.

We do interesting projects, and the material that I teach applies to real-life situations. I have been told lately that one of the hot topics during the interviews to apply to medical school is related to cultural competency. My students learn that in class, and I have had students that were being interviewed at MUSC in Charleston and knew exactly what to answer.

When they come to class the next day, they tell me that their interview went great and that they knew exactly what to say; well... it makes me feel very proud of what my students learn in class. I am incredibly grateful to the SCHC for giving me the chance to teach this course for them every spring semester. And I am also grateful to my Spanish program for allowing me to teach a non-honors version of this course every fall, too! 

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