Southeast’s Spanish for the Health Professions Minor Preparing Students to be Culturally Competent


Beginning this fall, Southeast Missouri State University students pursuing degrees in health-related fields can earn a new minor in Spanish for the health professions.

The program is preparing students to discuss health matters with clientele in Spanish, potentially assisting a population that has been underserved due to communication issues. The 18-credit hour minor is available and complements several degree programs, including nursing, health communication, pre-physician assistant, pre-physical therapy, health management and biomedical sciences.

The program helps students improve their proficiency in Spanish with the vocabulary and language understanding they’ll need to work with diverse populations, said Dr. Debbie Lee-DiStefano, professor of Spanish language and culture with Southeast’s Department of Communication Studies and Modern Languages.

“The program is structured so that they learn the language within the context of their careers,” Lee-Distefano said. “This makes the vocabulary so much more meaningful. We use the textbook as a foundation, but we go even further so our graduates can not only engage in medically-related conversations, but also have a cultural understanding and awareness in their future careers.”

Students take three levels of “Spanish for the Health Professions,” “Introduction to Hispanic Literature” and a 300-level Spanish course. The students must also take an experiential learning course such as “Winter in Ecuador” or a similar study-abroad course approved by their advisor and pass the Spanish Proficiency Exit Exam.

Southeast students visit the midwife community in Amu Pakin in Tena, Ecuador as part of the “Winter in Ecuador” experiential learning course.

For Southeast nursing senior Preston Holifield of Farmington, Missouri, the program was an opportunity to increase his Spanish fluency and better understand Hispanic culture.

“I want to be able to empathize and connect with my patients in my future practice, and I felt like one of the best ways to do this is to immerse myself in the language and customs of a foreign culture,” said Holifield, who plans to graduate this May. “I feel comfortable conversing and navigating foreign areas using my Spanish. I also learned many of the customs and expectations of the Hispanic community.”

Southeast nursing junior Lauryn Torluemke of O’Fallon, Missouri, said the program’s courses also helped her to not only better understand the Hispanic culture, but also gain insight into the differences between the American health care system and those in other countries and how that can affect a patient’s expectations.

“We practiced doing medical interviews, especially focusing on incorporating suggestions and recommendations rather than commands,” she said. “Commands may not be received well, especially when it is so important for the health care professional to develop a trusting relationship with a patient.”

One of Torluemke’s main takeaways from these courses is the value placed on the time a health care professional spends with a patient.

“It is not received well if one goes in and out of an appointment as quickly as we tend to do in the U.S.,” she said.

Building relationships between healthcare providers and patients is an important and valued skill, and the program builds students’ cultural awareness while preparing them for successful careers.

Southeast students discuss the US and Ecuador healthcare systems with Dr. Xavier Caicedo of the Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador, during the “Winter in Ecuador” experiential learning course.

“They can be linguistic and cultural ambassadors,” Lee-DiStefano said. “When they complete these courses, they gain a sense of responsibility for their future patients’ needs and support, and they can be a positive influence and voice in their future workplaces.”

Making a connection with more patients is an important part of being a successful nurse, said Torluemke, who plans to graduate in May 2021.

“As the main caregiver, I plan to spend the time with each patient to properly assess them and also give them the holistic care they need to improve their health,” she said. “Nursing is a holistic approach to health care, so it is important to not just solve the problem, but to consider the patient’s mind, culture, background and environment as well.”

The program, Holifield said, allowed him to build his confidence in his abilities to communicate and treat future patients.

“I believe that feeling comfortable, confident and pleased with one’s care while in the healthcare setting is important to one’s health from a holistic perspective and that empathy is the key to connection,” he said. “We have to have competence and awareness of one’s situation to understand and relate to another’s situation, and the education I have received from my Spanish studies will pay dividends in future practice.”