Campus & Community

Medical, dental students help immigrants talk to doctors with HEALTH Now

3 min read

Once a week, first-year medical student Janice Jin leaves the Longwood campus to travel to Chinatown where she spends a couple of hours talking with a group of recently arrived Chinese immigrants about how to communicate with doctors.

How do you tell your doctor you have a headache or a stomach ache? What are the English words for common cold symptoms? What does the doctor mean when he says you have a bronchial infection or an intestinal parasite?

“As they become more familiar with the American words for medical terms, they become less shy about going to doctors and discussing their symptoms,” Jin said.

Jin is one of nine Medical and Dental School students participating in a new health literacy and tutoring program, HEALTH Now! (Helping Education And Literacy Through Health). The students work with a variety of agencies serving immigrant groups in the Boston area, combining literacy tutoring with the discussion of medical issues. Many of the student volunteers are immigrants themselves, or, like Jin, children of immigrants, and this background gives the work a special satisfaction.

“My parents are from Taiwan. They’ve been in this country for 20 years, but they still have problems with the language and they’re still uncomfortable talking with doctors, so being able to help people with similar problems is a great experience for me.”

The program was developed by Jean Hess, community service liaison with the Medical School’s Office of Enrichment Programs. One of her inspirations was to help the Medical School contribute to National Literacy Week (Feb. 3-9). But her interest in the project has much deeper roots.

“I have a passion about this whole intersection of health and literacy,” she said. “It’s very inspiring to work with immigrant populations who are so intent on fitting into this complex culture.”

HEALTH Now! is only one aspect of the Medical School’s community service activities, Hess said. In fact, more than 50 percent of the students do community service at some point during their medical training.

The program has a lot of appeal for first-year students, she said, because it gives them a chance to become health educators even though their own medical skills are still at a rudimentary level. It also gives them a chance to use their imaginations in finding new ways to reach immigrant populations and to make medical information comprehensible to them.

“We’re trying to be innovative and creative and get them to think outside the box,” Hess said.