Medical School Finds Language-gap Remedy

Posted: August 23, 1990

By the time they were ready to begin hospital rotations, students at the Medical College of Pennsylvania had been tutored and tested in topics from anabolic respiration to zygote development.

But when they moved to the inner city and began the day-to-day grind of treating a diverse group of patients, the young doctors-to-be discovered that their medical know-how wasn't enough to make accurate diagnoses.

Medical knowledge isn't of much use if the patient can't understand the simple question, "Where does it hurt?"

That's why students at MCP asked for classes in Spanish. And that's why Leo Cosio, a Bolivia-born biologist living on the Main Line, has come up with an innovative language program that combines "street Spanish" with medical terminology.

The program will be offered to MCP's 500 students starting in September. Although it is an elective, Cosio says the skills it offers are essential for any doctor working in a big city.

"Medical professionals working in metropolitan cities will have to face, one way or another, Spanish-speaking people whose knowledge of English will be very limited or nothing," Cosio said.

In Philadelphia, Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group with many living in neighborhoods in which English is rarely spoken.

"Although (Spanish-speaking people) should be integrated into the community and learn English," Cosio said, "at this time we cannot wait until they learn. We have to treat them now and we have to communicate with them now."

Officially bestowed the title "Conversational Spanish for Medical Personnel," Cosio's course will teach students "street Spanish." The doctors-to-be will learn Spanish colloquialisms, greetings and how to ask questions about patients' pains.

The program is unique among Philadelphia's medical schools. At Temple, students organized a conversational Spanish group, but no courses are offered at any other medical school.

At MCP, "the students requested it, and we are fulfilling their request," Cosio said.

Spanish-speaking patients not only can communicate more easily with doctors in their native tongue, Cosio said, but they also place more trust in doctors who speak their language. They communicate more and keep in better touch with them.

Cosio, who moved to the United States in 1969 and to Narberth in 1973, has been called in to the Medical College hospital many times to interpret for medical workers who do not speak Spanish.

He said he didn't know how many students would sign up for the course; the

college will try, he said, to accommodate everyone who wants to learn.

"I hope we don't have to say no to anyone," he said.

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