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Healthcare in Your Language Isn’t a Given — A Local Program Wants to Change That

rutgers-camden student and professors on campus

/ Melissa Kelly Photography

Nearly half of Camden speaks Spanish at home but step into a doctor’s office or health clinic and it’s not uncommon to find a lack of bilingual clinicians. The language barrier can limit the flow of information in the very circumstances where an open dialogue is critical. The healthcare language gap in the city is changing, though, through an innovative community partnership.

Walk into a cancer screening clinic or a local community center and you may find Rutgers-Camden students ready to help. Enrolled in the interdisciplinary Spanish for Health Professions program, the undergraduates are learning the specific language skills they’ll need to work as certified medical translators.

Having someone in the room who speaks a patient’s native language makes an enormous difference, says Dana Pilla, M.A., Ed.M., an assistant teaching professor and co-director of the program.

“They’re getting more information out of the patients, they’re getting accurate information out of the patients and they’re able to communicate this timely medical information to the professional,” she says. “Not having the language skills to communicate with a patient is a barrier towards equity in healthcare. Essentially our program is attempting to remove that barrier.”

The learning starts in the classroom, but it continues through partnerships with local organizations, like the New Jersey Cancer Education and Early Detection (NJCEED) Program at Virtua. Students can earn credits towards the certificate by working at the free mobile mammogram events. They often answer questions about the procedure or assist patients with paperwork.

“The students also help us with family members who also may have another health problem that may not be related to breast cancer screening, but they need medical care,” says Jackie Miller RN, BSN, OCN, the NJCEED Program Manager at Virtua. “At that point, we will connect them to another community resource to make sure that that person gets what they need. Oftentimes, that simply comes because there’s a one-on-one with that person filling out paperwork and answering questions in their native language.”

rutgers-camden student silvia tenezca

/ Melissa Kelly Photography

For one student enrolled in the program, its impact hits especially close to home. “I was born and raised in Ecuador and when I came here to this country, I struggled myself learning English,” says Silvia Tenezca, a 38-year-old student in the Rutgers School of Nursing. “I know how it feels to not understand and speak English, so I like to help my community.” Earning the certificate will enable her to do just that, but until then, Tenezca continues to volunteer at Virtua in her free time.

“The last time I was there, people didn’t know what ‘colonoscopy’ meant,” she recalls. “With things like that, you need to educate them on what it is.”

After graduating in 2021, Tenezca hopes to work as a bilingual registered nurse in the Camden area. A significant number of classmates will join her. Enrollment in the Spanish for Health Professions program has grown from about 25 students to more than 400 in two years thanks in part to a generous U.S. Department of Education grant. The skyrocketing 1,500% increase points to the substantial need, Pilla states.

“By recognizing a gap in the marketplace, we’ve developed a program that can challenge our students to utilize what they’ve learned in the classroom and immediately apply it to a need in the world,” she says. “It’s really good professionally because it provides them with the right skills, but it also makes a real, meaningful impact on the greater campus community, which is the whole point.”

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