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Future Doctors Learn Medical English in Cuba

Juan Carlos Dominguez Lopez, second from left, and medical students at Universidad de Ciencias Médicas de La Habana.
Juan Carlos Dominguez Lopez, second from left, and medical students at Universidad de Ciencias Médicas de La Habana.
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How can I help you?

How long has it been hurting?

These are among the sentences that medical students are learning at the Enrique Cabrera Medical School in Havana, Cuba. Graduates from the medical school practice medicine in Cuba as well as in countries in Africa and South and Central America.

Juan Carlos Dominguez Lopez is head of the English Department at the school. Professor Lopez says that medical students begin by learning how to ask about the patient’s problem. They learn questions such as,

What can I do for you?
Where does it hurt?
Can you describe your pain?
Are you taking any medication?

Talking with patients is more difficult when the patient is a child or does not speak the same language as the doctor. At these times, students learn that pictures or cartoons can help. The patient can point to a picture that explains an injury. Future doctors also learn to use the command form of verbs, like:

Sit down.
Tell me about your family history.
Hold out your arm.

The most important tool for learning about English medical language is real-life experience, according to Lopez. He says students go along with doctors to visit patients in the university’s hospital or clinic. On these “rounds” the students observe how doctors and specialists talk with patients, discuss each case, and make reports.

The value of this real-life experience is to connect theory to practice. Students learn theory in the classroom, but find out how doctors help patients in the clinic. For example, students may learn germ theory - the idea that germs cause disease. But as they follow doctors they may see how often the doctors wash their hands and how they wear masks and gowns or scrubs to prevent infection.

As students become more advanced, Lopez says they learn the English grammar structure reported speech. Reported speech is how we tell others what someone else said. When doctors write a report or talk with others, they use reported speech:

The patient said that she has had two children.
Dr. Gonzalez said the previous surgery was successful.

Medical English learners who speak Spanish must learn the difference between words like "suffer" in English and "sufrir" in Spanish. They are not used in the same ways. In English, one says, "the patient suffers from" a disease to mean "the patient complains" of the disease.

In addition to learning from real-life experience, students at Enrique Cabrera Medical School read and listen to articles on medical topics from VOA Learning English and watch videos. Lopez says he teaches about a group of liver diseases known as hepatitis using a VOA story. He says using multimedia materials from VOA and BBC motivate students to learn more.

No matter how much one studies, there is nothing like living and working in an English-speaking country. Lopez says that often (former) students return from working abroad and report, “Wow! I thought I knew English – but once I was there, it was very difficult to understand their English!”

Professor Lopez says Cuban students prefer to practice American English rather than British English. After all, Cuba and the United States are neighbors – only 90 miles (144 kilometers) away from each other. As the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. improves, Lopez hopes that more student scholarships and courses in the U.S. will be available for his students. Already, he has taken training at the U.S. Embassy on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is required for international students entering American universities.

I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm John Reynolds.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

history n. (medical) an account of past diseases, injuries, treatments, and other strictly medical facts

patient n. a person who receives medical care or treatment

rounds - n. a series of regular or similar visits or stops

specialist – n. a doctor who deals with health problems that relate to a specific area of medicine

case n. a situation that is being investigated or managed by someone (such as a doctor) in an official way

germ theoryn. theory that some diseases are caused by small invisible microorganisms

maskn. a covering used to protect your face or cover your mouth

gown n. a coverall worn in an operating room.

scrubsn. special loose clothing that is worn by people who work in hospitals

Now it’s your turn. Are you learning English for a job that you plan to do? Write to us about it in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.