USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

Communication and Caring

When a dental problem arises, effective treatment depends upon good communication between the patient and the dentist. Because a language barrier can be a serious obstacle for a successful diagnosis, treatment and recovery, the dental community is growing more concerned about the ability to treat the large number of Los Angeles residents who have difficulty speaking English.

According to a 2008 Scarborough Research survey, 26.5 percent of Latinos in Los Angeles speak Spanish more often than English at home; an additional 26.4 percent speak only Spanish at home.. Patients of the USC School of Dentistry can request licensed interpreters for any language to be present at their appointments, but dental students are working on their own language skills in order to provide better care for the school’s large Spanish-speaking patient population.

Spanish-speaking students in the USC School of Dentistry’s Advanced Standing Program for International Dentists (ASPID) lead language classes twice a year. Spanish for Dentistry focuses on teaching beginners the basics of Spanish dental vocabulary and grammar and gives advanced students the opportunity to further refine and practice their Spanish language skills in clinical role-playing scenarios. Students meet for two hours twice a week for six weeks. Instructors use the “Spanish for Dentistry” textbook written by former USCSD staff member Virginia Santos.

“We have a very high percentage of Spanish-speaking patients in our clinic,” said Maria Fernanda Amador, a second year ASPID student and a volunteer instructor. When patients can explain their medical concerns and receive instructions in the language in which they are fluent, their treatment and recovery from dental problems becomes a better experience, Amador said.

Hana Kim, a third-year dental student and one of nearly 40 students taking the class this fall, agreed. She decided to take the Spanish class after she started working in the clinic this fall, where she saw how patients more comfortable with Spanish seemed to relax around students who spoke even just a bit of the language.

“The Spanish-speaking patients seem to really like it when students try to speak their language,” Kim said, “and they are very understanding and helpful when students make the attempt.” Bilingual dental students can treat both English- and Spanish-speaking patients, thus meeting clinical competency requirements more quickly, she said.

Niel Nathason, assistant dean for Community Health Programs, helped develop the classes, which have been offered since 2000. A grant once supported the class and its paid instructors. Now, the grant has expired and the program relies on volunteer instructors. The Spanish-speaking students in the ASPID program have stepped in to help in a big way, Nathason said.
“The current session is the second session that’s completely run by the ASPID students,” Nathason said. “We greatly appreciate their volunteerism, and especially their creativity and experience.”

The class is very popular and spaces quickly fill. Nathason said he hopes to obtain more resources and recruit more volunteers to expand the classes. Other dental schools in Southern California have also begun examining the USCSD classes in hopes of starting their own programs, he said.

For more information on attending the next session of Spanish for Dentistry or becoming an instructor, contact Community Health Special Project Manager Carol Parker, who coordinates the classes, at