Student leads charge to reduce health disparities

Medical School student Jessica Galarraga, with a paitent

Jessica Galarraga recently finished rotations at the Thomas F. McCafferty Health Center, which provides services in both English and Spanish. The health center is located on Cleveland's near-west side and is owned by the City of Cleveland and operated by MetroHealth.

It was in her first year of medical school at Case Western Reserve University that Jessica Galarraga first felt lost in translation. Galarraga excelled in conversational exchanges with Spanish-speaking patients, but she lacked the same competency when discussing medical conditions.

"If I was talking to a patient about how their day was or about their family, I had no problem communicating," she says. "But when it came to explaining to a young girl that the bump on her breast was the inflammation of a lymph node, I struggled finding the words to explain it."

Galarraga, whose mother is from Puerto Rico and whose father is from Cuba, says she learned a lot from that first rotation at a predominately Spanish-speaking clinic.

"I realized that I needed to work on my own medical Spanish," she says. "I also saw a need for my colleagues. They needed to work on some conversational Spanish and learn medical Spanish—and they needed to be able to do it in a way that was conducive to the demands of medical school."

Galarraga says that physicians who can convey a diagnosis and give medical advice in Spanish are better equipped to help reduce the health disparities faced by Hispanic Americans than are doctors who speak only basic Spanish—and they are certainly more prepared than monolingual physicians. Fueled by her desire to make an impact on the School of Medicine and in the Hispanic community, Galarraga spent the next summer personally meeting with every willing Spanish—speaking physician in the Cleveland area—laying the groundwork for the School of Medicine's Applied Medical Spanish Program.

The elective program was launched in August 2007 and enrolled 100 students in its first two years. Galarraga says the goal is to increase the number of physicians graduating from the School of Medicine who are able to effectively care for Spanish-speaking patients. She says the program was designed so that any student—fluent or without any prior experience—can learn to communicate in clinical settings.

Galarraga, who earned her MPH in Health Policy & Administration from the School of Medicine in July, continues to coordinate the program as she finishes work on her MD. She has ambitious goals for her future as a bilingual physician.

"I'll be able to attend to this patient population and be one more person that can help ease the Spanish-English language barrier," she says. "I see myself in the future as an advocate for Latino patients."