Print Email Facebook Twitter Release Share Font Size: A A A A
Health sciences class
Students talk to Russian-speaking patients
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
By Doug Nadvornick, WSU Spokane
SPOKANE, Wash. - Communication is an important part of any visit to a hospital or clinic. If a health care provider can't understand what a patient is saying - or vice versa - an appointment probably won't go well.
Especially sensitive to this difficulty is Dan Topping, clinical assistant professor in the WWAMI medical program at Washington State University Spokane. The family practice physician - now a full-time instructor - speaks Russian and has cared for Russian-speaking patients for much of his clinical career.
Bridging cultural barrier too
When he moved from Pullman to Spokane in 2010, Topping learned that Spokane has a large Slavic population. Many of those people emigrated from countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, and they speak little or no English.
Their ability to communicate with their health care providers can sometimes be limited, even with English-speaking relatives as go-betweens.
Apart from the language barrier, there also is a cultural obstacle.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about Russian-speaking people,” said Topping, who served as an interpreter in the military and is married to a Russian woman. "Back in the '80s, we had these movies that portrayed them as evil communists. Now they're portrayed as Russian mafia, gangsters.
"It just seemed natural to me, when I came up here, to create something that would help bridge that gap between the health care campus that we have here and that community," he said.
Videos portray sample scenarios
Topping is creating a one-credit elective class - scheduled to start in the fall - for health sciences students on the Riverpoint Campus who want to learn how to communicate more effectively with their Russian-speaking patients. The course will include lessons about Slavic culture as well as basic language instruction.
Topping has created about a dozen short videos with the help of native Russian-speaking students who volunteered their time.
"I wrote these little scenarios that show a patient and provider discourse. They're kind of dramatic," he said. "I did that for two reasons: to make it interesting and to allow you to hear the questions a patient might be asked in a certain situation."
The dialogue in the videos in entirely in Russian, though Topping includes English subtitles.
Language competency can lead to healthier patients
Topping said his class will not only improve communication between health care providers and their Slavic patients, it may also have health benefits.
"The evidence is out there that having the ability to speak the language of the patient and having some cultural competency improves patient adherence" with a provider's plan of care, he said.
WSU assistant professor of nursing Catherine Van Son is collaborating with Topping. She also works with Russian-speaking patients, especially older adults.
"In my experience, making the effort to say simple words in the patient's language, no matter how poorly they are said, facilitates trust," she said. "Saying 'hello,' 'thank you,' 'goodbye' in your patient's language takes no time or money. But I contend that this is one of the most effective interventions for providers to implement."
A draw for patients
Those doctors and nurses who make the effort may find themselves rewarded with a steady stream of patients.
When Topping was an obstetrics fellow in South Carolina early in his medical career, news spread that he spoke Russian.
"There was a pretty significant population of Ukrainian patients," he said. "Word got out and they gravitated toward me; I had a pretty significant practice with Russian-speaking patients.
"I found it made a big difference,” he said. "It put their minds at ease and made it easier to get things done and communicate with those patients."