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How med students help fill gap in Spanish-speaking medical professionals in Idaho

WWAMI Idaho med students video

Idaho med students discuss their experiences in WWAMI, the medical-education program for five states run by the University of Washington. WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
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Idaho med students discuss their experiences in WWAMI, the medical-education program for five states run by the University of Washington. WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

When Lucia Carbajal was growing up in Weiser, the town had only one medical provider who spoke Spanish. Not much has changed since.

Carbajal, a medical student, wants to help ease that shortage. Carbajal and other medical students taking part in two programs at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s multistate medical education program are looking bring more Spanish-speaking medical providers to rural communities in Idaho and four other states.

About 90% of Idaho is considered underserved or rural when it comes to medical care. That gap can be even bigger when it comes to finding Spanish-speaking medical professionals. The two programs — the Rural Underserved Opportunities Program and Targeted Rural Underserved Track, or TRUST — help to train medical professionals to work in rural or underserved areas.

Some providers have access to translators to serve people who may not speak English as their primary language, but some people say a lot can get lost in translation.

Carbajal, who is 23, thinks of her parents’ experience when they first moved to the U.S. and how hard it must have been to receive care with a language barrier.

“I just imagine ... how scary and intimidating that must have been,” she said in a phone interview. “If I can do something to help those communities that aren’t able to communicate in English or are afraid … I think that’s part of what inspired me to go to medical school and become interested in rural and underserved medicine.”

A student in the University of Washington's Medical School talks about working with rural patients through a program that brings students to small communities in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and Washington.

She is doing her residency at Terry Reilly Health Services in Nampa. She also spent time in Marsing. She was at Terry Reilly for one week last year, and this summer she spent a month there. Next year, she will spend five months at Terry Reilly.

Jonathan Bowman, a physician who oversees Carbajal at Terry Reilly, said between 25% and 30% of the patients in Nampa prefer to speak Spanish. Having a medical provider who can speak with them directly, instead of through a medical assistant who can translate, is much better, he said.

William Veloso, a 22-year-old medical student in the TRUST program who grew up in Meridian, said he also hopes to help remove the language barrier for patients in Idaho.

Veloso’s father grew up in South Korea and is not a native English speaker. When Veloso noticed how that could become a barrier to receiving medical care, he said, he dedicated his undergraduate career to learning Spanish. He earned a degree in Spanish for health professions at Idaho State University.

“In a lot of communities in Idaho, people who may not speak English well are still really hesitant to come into the clinics and speak with doctors about their health issues,” Veloso said in a phone interview. “Speaking about such an important topic and such a personal topic is difficult when it’s not your native language.”

He said it’s crucial for patients to understand the reasoning behind their treatments and for medical professionals to be able to explain and understand fully what is going on with the patient.

“We find that when people understand the reasoning behind their treatments, instead of being told, ‘Hey, go take this medication, and you’ll be fine,’ people really understand why you’re doing what it is that you’re doing,” Veloso said. “They then follow through with the treatments more frequently, or concerns are addressed properly.”

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