Student Spearheads New Medical Spanish Elective

A second-year student recently spearheaded an effort to create a medical Spanish elective for medical students.

Andrew Olsen said he was drawn to BUSM because of its mission of caring for Boston’s most vulnerable communities. During his first year he began working with Spanish-speaking patients and, although medical Spanish classes had been offered at BUSM in the past, none was offered during that year.

“Although I could speak Spanish reasonably well, I realized that I lacked the ability to communicate with patients about their medical issues,” Olsen said.

During the summer between his first and second years he practiced Spanish while volunteering for Giovanna Tapia, founder and director of Spanish Immersion Jamaica Plain, a local nonprofit that focuses on creating a community for Hispanic senior citizens by connecting them with Spanish language learners.

Olsen, Tapia and Suzanne Sarfaty, MD, associate professor of medicine and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, developed a partnership with Spanish Immersion JP that benefited Hispanic adults and students eager to practice medical Spanish.

Olsen said he was amazed by the interest in a medical Spanish class from his peers. With the help of Sarfaty and Tapia, who had a connection with a doctor who had experience teaching Spanish to students, the Medical Spanish Elective was born.

“None of it would have happened without passion for the idea at every level and it was a real testament to BUSM students and administration that they coalesced around this idea and made it happen in so little time,” Olsen said.

The course teaches “medical Spanish,” which includes the vocabulary and skills necessary to take a medical history and conduct a physical exam. On five occasions, Tapia brought groups of senior citizens from Spanish Immersion JP to the Medical Campus, where they were able to talk one-on-one with the students in Spanish.

COM_students with spanish senior citizens
BUSM students with senior citizens from Spanish Immersion JP

Olsen credited the success of the elective with the help and interest of both professors and medical students. A small group of students divided up the work of creating each week’s syllabus. During the week leading up to the class, two or three people researched vocabulary relevant to the week’s topic and wrote dialogues and exercises to help students practice.  In just 10 weeks, the students had written a medical Spanish syllabus that was more than 100 pages long.

Olsen thinks the elective has the potential to improve care at the clinical site through which a BUSM student rotates.

“Competency in a language that is shared by an ever growing portion of the population should be the standard of care,” he said. “Hopefully alumni of this elective will bring that competency with them where they rotate, and help improve the services offered to the diverse communities we serve.”