June 9, 2023 — With about 15% of Alachua County households primarily speaking a language other than English at home, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s important for health care workers to be mindful of their patients’ language and cultural considerations.
Bilingual medical students at the UF College of Medicine are leading an effort to provide better care to patients with limited English proficiency by becoming authorized medical interpreters. Starting this summer, interested medical students can take an elective course that will prepare them to pass an exam to become authorized medical interpreters for UF Health through training from the Gulfcoast South Area Health Education Center.
“I have been working with the Equal Access Clinic Network since undergrad, where we have a significant number of non-English speakers seeking care,” said Nicole Diaz, a medical student in the class of 2026 and one of the initiative’s organizers. “One of my goals is to ultimately be a bilingual medical provider, to provide care in Spanish, and having formal training is one way we can work toward providing better care for our total population in North Central Florida.”
She and her peers, including class of 2024 medical students Juan Pablo Santana and Hassan Perera and recent graduate Dinia Salmeron, M.D. ’23, have presented to faculty on the need for more services to better assist patients with limited English proficiency at the UF Equal Access Clinic Network locations and UF Health facilities. The students hope to later expand the program so that physician assistant, pharmacy and nursing students, as well as undergraduates volunteering with the Equal Access Clinic Network and UF Mobile Outreach Clinic, can participate and become trained as well.
Diaz, who grew up speaking English and Spanish with her Cuban family in Miami, said so far, more than 60 students have expressed interest in training. The medical interpreter training course, which can be completed online over a four-week period, costs $250 per student. The students and their faculty advisers, Jessica Portillo Romero, M.D., and Laura Guyer, Ph.D. M.Ed., R.D.N., hope to raise funds to cover the costs of the course.
The most common languages spoken other than English at the Equal Access Clinic Network facilities, which provide free health checkups and screenings to community members, are Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese, though Diaz said that many other medical students speak additional languages that help fill the community’s needs. The course curriculum allows students proficient in various languages to complete lectures that cover topics fundamental for effective interpretation: ethics of practice, case studies, cultural competence and more.
Diaz said authorized medical interpreters can help patients with limited English proficiency feel like their symptoms and health conditions are better understood by health care teams. Medical interpreters further ensure patient safety, increase patient understanding and adherence and reduce the risk of misdiagnosis, extended hospital stays and adverse outcomes.
“Professionally training medical students in medical interpreting makes them better patient advocates,” she said. “This prepares us to be better bilingual providers in the future. When an interpreter is in the room with a patient, they can immediately respond to something going on and notice subtle nonverbal cues. Not having an interpreter present there with the patient can really hinder the doctor-patient relationship.”
Portillo Romero, an assistant professor in the division of internal medicine who is originally from Peru and speaks both English and Spanish, said serving as a medical interpreter goes beyond speaking the language — it’s also about considering the cultural differences among varying patient populations.
“Different cultures have different ways of thinking,” she said. “The great thing about authorization is also that it can be useful for the students after they graduate. It can give them an advantage when applying to residency programs and may be used to help treat populations in the area where they will be continuing their training.”