First-year pharmacy students learn how to work with non-English speakers

An actor impersonating a patient sits amongst a group of first-year pharmacy students.
First-year pharmacy students work with an actor impersonating a patient who only speaks Spanish. Their goal is to communicate with the patient actor through an interpreter using best practices including direct eye contact with the patient and ensuring information is accurately portrayed. In this scenario, a mother is seeking directions on administering Tylenol to their sick child.

As the number of non-English speakers continues to grow across the country, Washington State University pharmacy students are now learning how to communicate with this diverse population earlier in their education than ever before.

The College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences recently held a new two-day workshop to familiarize first-year students with the diverse multicultural communities they will be serving in Spokane and other urban centers on the West Coast. The training comes as Spokane’s current population of around 11,000 refugees, who came here fleeing war and other disasters, continues to grow each year. In the last two years, the area has seen an influx in Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. Many of these refugees speak little or no English and can struggle communicating with pharmacists and other health care providers.

“The idea behind the lab was to provide students with a little introduction to the non-verbal and technology-based communication methods that are going to be their best friends,” said Monica Graham, a former community college ESL instructor who is now assistant director of student services for the college. “We wanted to help them understand what this looks like ethically, what their roles and responsibilities are, and most importantly, how do they provide the best patient care.”

Graham, and pharmacist Megan Willson, associate dean for professional education for the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, designed the workshop to first provide an overview of working with people from different cultures who might not speak English.

This included a session with a patient actor who only spoke Spanish. Students had to rely on a family member or Google translate to interpret, exposing them to the many nuances that they may face in real life practice. Other activities included creating a picture calendar for non-literate speakers, discussing the universality of pictures, and exploring the challenges of translating sentences between Arabic and English. The students also practiced simplifying language, avoiding idioms, and communicating effectively with patients through various scenarios.

Certified medical translators in the Arabic community also visited to share their real-world experiences in translating for patients. Speakers talked about their experiences as well as best practices and potential challenges students will ultimately face in health care settings.

“Pharmacists often only have a few minutes of interaction with their patients, which can make effective communication difficult, especially when the patient speaks another language,” said Willson, who plans to work with Graham to continue the workshop next year. “Our aim here was really to expose our students to the complexities of these types of situations, where reliance on technology and family members as interpreters is common and can be challenging.”

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