English for Health program provides lessons in medical terminology to non-native speakers

Guadalupe Torres is soft-spoken; her quiet, tentative, English is highlighted by a lilting Mexican accent. She appears shy, perhaps even timid. But when she last visited her doctor and her interpreter was late, she was unfazed, even eager to take on the challenge of speaking to the doctor alone. Torres was confident about navigating the healthcare system in the United States, all thanks to one class. 

Torres is now part of a nine-member, ‘English for Health’ class run by Literacy Network, a non-profit organization in Madison, Wis. The free class is unique in that, non-native speakers learn the English language while at the same time acquiring a broad spectrum of knowledge on the nature of medication, nutrition, describing symptoms and communicating with healthcare providers. They do so without the help of interpreters, learning solely through practice and demonstration.

“We bring in pictures, medicine bottles, the human organs; things that they can really see, touch and visualize. If you don’t know the language, the best way to learn is to see something and the language kind of builds around that,” said Marie Green Ganser, the current instructor of English for Health.

It is a paradigm that evolved from students’ feedback. In 2008 Beth Gaytan, the Senior Director for English Language education, was teaching a civics class for refugees and immigrants when she found that the students had many questions about healthcare in the United States. Gaytan then put together a health literacy curriculum for a nine-week class in the same year, which was designed around the questions that students had. To cap off the course, Gaytan invited her mother who was a registered nurse at Meriter Hospital and a few volunteer tutors who also happened to be registered nurses at St. Mary’s Hospital to recreate conversations that would occur in actual hospital settings. 

At present, the ‘English for Health’ class has a standardized curriculum with 24 lesson plans. It runs as two, free, 12-week sessions through the course of a year. The first session focuses on accessing the healthcare system, communicating with healthcare providers and medication safety, while the second session highlights nutrition, chronic disease prevention and healthy habits. Since it started, the ‘English for Health’ class has helped 180 non-native English speakers.

Despite the program having found a rhythm in terms of the course structure and lesson plans, as a teacher, Green-Ganser does face some hurdles.

“The biggest obstacle for us is retaining students because of their busy lives. I call them all before class or email them, to try to motivate them to come to class” she said.

Green Ganser recalls an experience with a student who once told her that she had never finished a class except English for Health, because Green Ganser had ‘nagged’ her to come.

“Because I told her, ‘This is what nag means’, I call you every single time and say, ‘Are you coming?” she laughs.

The Literacy Network tries to make it easier for the students to participate. In addition to making the classes free, they provide on-site day care facilities for those students with children, with snacks for the children and the students themselves.

The Literacy Network has partnered with almost all of the hospitals and clinics in Madison, amongst which are St. Mary’s Hospital, the UW-Madison Hospital and Clinics, and the Wingra Community Health Center. They provide financial support and class space. Medical students and pharmacists from these institutions serve as presenters and volunteers, and answer in-depth health-related questions or teach core medical terms.

“Our focus of the program is really bridging adults in the community who are learning English with medical staff and professionals.” Gaytan said. 

Gaytan believes the class is breaking down the barriers on both sides. Students are able to navigate the healthcare system and are less nervous about talking to healthcare providers, while medical staff and professionals learn how to best communicate with English language learners in the community.

Juan Gomez, a student who is now in his second semester with the English for Health program, has certainly gained confidence in his communication skills.  “I understand almost everything when the doctor explains (to) me; what I have to do for me, or what should I do. I understand better," he said.