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Should US physicians learn Spanish?

Last night I was having dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak and entered into a conversation (in Spanish) with one of the wait staff. He was surprised when I ordered in Spanish and we had a friendly conversation about the merits of whole grain bread. He asked me why I spoke Spanish. I answered simply, “porque soy doctora” – because I’m a doctor.

Dr. Richard Reece’s recent blog post tackles the issue of language barriers in the healthcare system. He gives some good advice for cross-cultural communications, reminds us that 25% of US physicians are foreign born, and quotes the inscription on the statue of liberty as the reason why Americans should remember to welcome foreigners. However, he also encourages immigrants to learn English and frowns upon illegal immigration.

As for me, I learned Spanish because I was worried that I’d harm a patient by misunderstanding what they were trying to communicate. Of course we try to have an interpreter at the bedside at all times, but in reality it just doesn’t happen consistently. Learning Spanish was my way of practicing safer medicine.

Now it is frustrating that some patients (at least in NYC) seem to feel as if their doctor is obliged to learn Spanish. They sometimes have an attitude of entitlement that I find hard to swallow. I try to put myself in their shoes, but honestly if I were ill in a foreign country I wouldn’t assume that it was my right to receive care in English.

Still, for me, learning Spanish was a wonderful thing. There is a certain caring that I can communicate, and a certain warmth and appreciation that I feel from my patients as they encourage me – that even though I make mistakes with my grammar, they can still understand my meaning quite well. We laugh a lot at the words I find to describe things – and it generally provides a lighter tone to the interaction. Laughter is good medicine, and if my version of Spanish brings laughter to others – then so much the better!

Do you think US healthcare professionals should make an effort to learn Spanish?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Should US physicians learn Spanish?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think that may be nice. However in my area we do not have predominately Spanish speaking people. We have those of Spanish, Italian, Armenia, Hindu, and Chinese.Most of the Spanish speaking come from Puerto Rico and also speak English. Instead of medical schools concentrating on one language, make it a requirement to be able to converse in any other language. It also would be nice to require a English speech class for all foreign licensed in this country. If I were to be licensed in France or Italy, I would hope that they would require me to have at least a conversational level of the language so that I could converse w/ the patient and not rely on a family member or other lay person to translate . You’d never know what that person said to the patient.

  2. earthling says:

    I don’t think doctors should feel obligated to learn another language – they have enough to fill their brains with already ;-) Of course it might be a smart business move, especially if they practice in a place like Southern California where you practically hear as much Spanish as English. A clinic or large practice should certainly have someone in the office who is fluent in a second language which is spoken by many of its clients. But I don’t think pressure should be put on doctors to be bilingual.

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