Learning Spanish for nurses may seem seem daunting, but is well worth the effort, according to one nurse.

Being able to communicate in Spanish can go a long way in nursing, said Tracey Long, PhD, MS, RN, APRN, a nursing professor at Arizona College of Nursing who runs clinicals at a Las Vegas hospital and can read, write and speak Spanish fluently.

She immersed herself in the Spanish-speaking culture, living in Spain for a summer as an undergraduate nursing student and later serving as a volunteer health welfare missionary in Colombia, South America, for almost two years.

Many U.S. nurses care for Spanish-speaking patients regularly, especially in states with large Hispanic populations, such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas.

Not being able to effectively communicate in Spanish can be problematic for nurses, since only 57.5% of Hispanic Spanish speakers speak English “very well,” according to 2016 statistics from the Census Bureau.

Benefits of Spanish for nurses and other pros

Learning at least basic Spanish, according to Long, can greatly help RNs provide good care.

Long teaches our Focused CE series Basic Spanish for Healthcare Providers, along with Speedy Spanish for Healthcare Providers, a 0.5-hour course that gives healthcare providers basic concepts of Spanish grammar and vocabulary necessary for some patient communication.

She also teaches our Intermediate Spanish for Healthcare Providers Focused CE series, which is for healthcare professionals who know some Spanish but want to improve their language skills and better understand medical vocabulary.

The CE series, she said, helps healthcare providers through various clinical encounters with Spanish-speaking patients.

“The course is geared specifically toward healthcare professionals, so it delivers the conversational phrases, the vocabulary and even the cultural background that they need to understand to better work effectively with the Spanish-speaking patient,” Long said.

Having some level of Spanish-speaking ability is a skill that can differentiate a nurse job candidate, adding value to his or her resume.

Knowing Spanish also increases quality of care, Long said.

Yet another advantage of learning Spanish for nurses is it helps providers better understand patients’ values and culture, according to Long. For example, nurses educating patients about their medications might think Spanish-speaking patients are very passive. But their behavior has more to do with the belief that God is in charge and if they’re sick, there is a reason, Long said.

“Oftentimes their resistance to filling prescriptions is not so much a language barrier but a very deeply rooted belief system and values that we need to understand,” she said.

It’s much easier to make those distinctions when nurses can talk with patients without the burden of a language barrier. That’s why our Focused CE Series educates participants about not only Spanish grammar and vocabulary but also cultural considerations, according to Long.

Benefits to having a translator

There are times when nurses should or must, because of an employer’s policy, bring a translator to the point of care.

Among the situations when a translator can help include:

  • During conversations about surgery
  • When discussing advanced directives
  • Sharing concerns about a patient’s mental health

Long teaches healthcare providers how to appropriately and effectively use translators, which she considers a skill in itself.

Think it might be too hard?

Nurses often feel intimidated about learning a new language, even if it’s just the basics, according to Long.

“The reality is they already learned another language and its medical terminology,” Long said. “The great thing about Spanish is our medical terms are based in Latin and that is the root language of Spanish. In the first class, I show them how many medical terms in Spanish they already know. My hope is they come away thinking, ‘Wow, I can do this because all these terms are very familiar anyway.’”

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