Pharmacists frequently depend on a range of vital skills, including leadership, teamwork, time management, and meticulous attention to detail. However, among these crucial abilities, effective communication skills stand out as paramount. Pharmacists, as experts in medications, regularly engage in communication with fellow pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, nurses, healthcare providers, and, notably, patients.

Patients come from a variety of diverse cultural, linguistic, religious, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And yet, pharmacists need to be able to provide adequate care to all patients. Part of this responsibility involves clear and simple communication with patients.

Even with using patient-friendly terminology (e.g. “high blood pressure” instead of “hypertension”), clear communication still can be a challenging task. Complex medications can be hard to understand and communicate due to intricate and nuanced information.

Unfortunately, misunderstandings and miscommunications with medications can lead to errors, decreased quality of care, poor outcomes, or harmful adverse events. Language differences influence communication, which also affects patient satisfaction and adherence to recommendations.

Patients with limited English proficiency are especially likely to experience poor patient-clinician communication. This is why it’s critical that aspiring pharmacists begin to consider fluency in multiple languages, especially Spanish.

A growing need in the United States

In the United States, there is a growing need for pharmacists to provide patient care. This care must be specifically linguistically and culturally appropriate for Spanish-speaking patients. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2020, there were an estimated 62.1 million Hispanic people living in the United States, or 18.9% of the total US population. This makes persons who identify as Hispanic the country’s largest ethnic minority. In 2019, Spanish was the most common non-English language spoken in U.S. homes. Approximately 28.4 percent of Hispanics, however, stated that they are not fluent in English.

The Hispanic population in the United States is underserved and underrepresented in the healthcare workforce, particularly in the pharmacy workforce. And, the majority of pharmacists do not have sufficient Spanish skills to communicate safely and effectively with patients in Spanish.

Therefore, there is a growing language gap where the patient and the pharmacist do not share a common language. This situation has significant potential to negatively impact patient care and is technically referred to as “language discordance.”

What can pharmacists do to address this growing language discordance problem?

Pharmacists can take several proactive steps to address the growing language discordance problem. They can also ensure effective communication with patients who may have limited proficiency in the primary language spoken in the healthcare setting. Here are some strategies:

  • Utilize Trained Interpreters: Appropriate use of interpreters is helpful and essential, but it is inferior to language concordant care where the patient and the practitioner speak the same language.
  • Provide Language Concordant Care: This must be done with appropriate language training to ensure the competent and appropriate use of language skills.

Addressing language discordance in pharmacy settings is essential to providing equitable healthcare services and ensuring patient safety. By implementing these strategies, pharmacists can enhance communication with patients from diverse linguistic backgrounds and improve overall healthcare outcomes.

What specific medical Spanish opportunities are available at CUW SOP?

Concordia University Wisconsin School of Pharmacy (CUW SOP), deeply commits to fostering a culture of patient-centered care, where we prioritize the well-being and needs of the patient in every healthcare decision. We understand that effective communication lies at the heart of this commitment. It is not merely about transmitting information but ensuring that patients receive and understand it.

In recognition of this vital aspect of healthcare, we prioritize equipping our students with the necessary skills. These skills enable them to engage with patients in a manner that transcends language barriers and fosters genuine understanding. Effective communication is a bridge that connects healthcare professionals with their patients, enabling them to make informed decisions together.

Here are some opportunities for students to learn and grow these skills:

  • Medical Spanish for Pharmacists Elective: Students learn to perform patient education and medication list retrieval in Spanish as well as participate in a service-learning opportunity. Additionally, students will learn cultural insights relevant to caring for patients from various Hispanic cultures.
  • Special Topics Course in Advanced Medical Spanish: Students have a personalized opportunity to dive deeper into more nuanced and complex medical Spanish topics, and develop patient education materials and pharmacist resources.
  • Study Abroad Opportunities: CUW SOP has supported several study abroad opportunities in the past including experiences in Peru and Spain.
  • NHPA Student Group: CUW SOP’s local chapter of the National Hispanic Pharmacist Association (NHPA) focuses on providing educational, service, and cultural experiences to students so that patient care for Hispanics can be improved.
  • APPE Experiences: There are several elective Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPE) that serve a predominantly Spanish-speaking patient population which provides an excellent opportunity for students to improve their language and cultural competency skills under the supervision and guidance of local clinical instructors.

Interested in learning more about language skills?

Contact Dr. Robert Mueller about his work in Medical Spanish. He can also give you more details on our student-centered and patient-centered pharmacy school.

About the Author

Robert Mueller, Pharm.D., BCPS is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice. He is a certified Spanish interpreter within Ascension WI and maintains a pharmacy practice as an inpatient clinical pharmacist at Ascension St. Joseph Hospital on an internal medicine floor. He also practices as an ambulatory care pharmacist within a family medicine clinic where he works via a collaborative practice agreement to provide medication therapy management to patients in Spanish with chronic diseases such as diabetes.

In the CUW School of Pharmacy, Dr. Mueller teaches elective classes on intermediate and advanced Medical Spanish for pharmacists where students learn how to provide language-concordant care in a variety of pharmacy settings. Dr. Mueller also helps teach all CUWSOP students how to work collaboratively with interpreters and helps train CVS pharmacy interns enrolled in a Spanish immersion summer internship program in medical Spanish. He also serves as a board member for the National Association of Medical Spanish (NAMS) and as an advisor for the school’s National Hispanic Pharmacists Association (NHPA) student chapter.