International Doctors Get Language Boost at IUPUI

INDIANAPOLIS – A rising number of new doctors trained in other countries has meant a booming business for an international communications program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication, which helps international faculty in all disciplines with language skills, provides training as part of orientation for IU’s family medicine residents. Center staff also work with businesses that want employees to improve their English.

IU officials say the program helps newly minted doctors overcome language and cultural barriers as they begin their careers.

“We’re in an environment so driven by the perception that language equals intelligence,” Dr. Sharree Grannis, IU’s family medicine program director, told The Indianapolis Star.

Grannis said patients or colleagues might assume that someone who speaks with an accent may not have the same ability as American-born and trained physicians.

“Our residents from international backgrounds have to work harder to prove their intelligence.”

Less than half of the medical students accepted into family medicine residency programs nationwide this year received their degrees from U.S. medical schools, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. About 80 percent of the residents in IU’s family medicine program receive their degrees from foreign institutions.

This year, all 12 residents entering the family medicine program are foreign-educated. English is a second or third language in all but three cases.

Ulla Connor, director of the intercultural center, said few universities have resources like those the center provides.

Center staff meet with the doctors regularly and help improve pronunciation and word choices to help them communicate better with patients.

Dr. Diana Morales Zelaya, who attended medical school in her native Honduras, said she struggled when she first started her residency and was working in pediatrics. She said she found it challenging to communicate with children and their parents.

“Sometimes they used slang, or they put words together,” she said.

By working with the center, she learned to finesse some of her language choices, including substituting words such as “procedure for “surgery.”

Dr. Laura Manzanilla-Luberti, a second-year family medicine resident from Venezuela, said she lacked confidence in her communication skills when she first arrived.

“I have fluent English, but my medical English is not as good,” she said. “So how can my patients trust me if they don’t know what she’s saying?”

The center’s staff can help with those skills and can point out cultural differences in U.S. medical practices. In some cultures, patients expect their doctors to hug or touch them in greeting. That would be considered unprofessional here.

Grannis said all IU family medicine residents go through the center’s training, even if they were born and educated in the United States. The training can help U.S. doctors overcome challenges when seeing patients from other countries, she said.

“Sometimes the U.S. students respond with ‘Why do we have to be here?’” Grannis said. “Then they meet the patients and say, ‘OK, that’s why we have to be here.’”