Professor hopes to make medical visits safer for Spanish speakers in Kansas

Many Americans are anxious when they see their doctor. But for non-English speakers, going to see any healthcare provider can be a point of stress.

Suppose a medical facility doesn't have a certified interpreter on its staff. In that case, non-English speakers may not be able to adequately describe their medical problems, which can lead to numerous health-related issues.

Rachel Showstack, associate professor of Spanish, is working to make a change so Spanish speakers can have safe experiences when going to any healthcare provider in Kansas. She is bringing awareness to issues Spanish speakers face with the coalition she helped found, Alce Su Voz: Raise Your Voice. Its primary purpose is to work toward health equity for Spanish speakers. 

"We are currently focusing on improved systems for providing interpreting services and improved dissemination of health information in Spanish,” Showstack said. “We are also interested in increasing the availability of language-concordant healthcare providers in Kansas (providers who speak the patient’s preferred language), and improved awareness about healthcare language access throughout the healthcare system."

Most Spanish speakers are not aware that they can ask for a certified interpreter when visiting a healthcare provider. However, if someone isn't aware that they can ask for an interpreter, and the healthcare provider doesn't have any Spanish speakers within its staff, the patient will have to rely on family or friends who speak English to interpret. Usually, the task falls on children and teens interpreting for their parents. Which can lead to various problems, as youth may not be aware of medical terminology they are using or might not understand the conditions they are discussing.

"Not having a qualified professional interpreter can lead to errors in communication and even misdiagnoses, which can lead to less-than-optimal health outcomes, and even, in some cases, preventable death," Showstack said.

It can also result in incomplete communication. 

"We had one stakeholder who told a story of undergoing a major emergency surgery without having an understanding of what was going to be done," Showstack said.  “She said that her ovaries and uterus were removed, and she only found out after the surgery was complete. This led to a feeling of violation and a deep depression later on.”

Showstack became interested in the problem with professional interpreting services in Kansas while researching Spanish language maintenance in Kansas Latinx families. Her motivation to improve interpreting services in healthcare increased after local safety net clinics—those that provide healthcare no matter the patient’s insurance status―asked her to send Spanish students to volunteer as interpreters. 

"Being an interpreter is a profession that requires a lot more than an ability to speak two languages," Showstack said, “It includes understanding the basic protocol and code of ethics for medical interpreting, specialized vocabulary for a specific healthcare context, and an understanding of how to enact the various roles that an interpreter is expected to play in order to ensure quality interpretation.”  

The Alce Su Voz team includes Spanish-speaking patients, family members, interpreters, healthcare providers and Wichita State University faculty and students. Funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute supports engagement with these stakeholders in conversations about healthcare language access in Kansas.

"We collaborate to work toward health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas," Showstack said.

Showstack is hopeful for Alce Su Voz to make essential changes now and in the future.

"I hope that we can continue to amplify the voices of Spanish-speaking Latinxs in Kansas," Showstack said.  “We would like to learn more about language barriers in specific types of healthcare contexts and regions of the state. Right now, we are particularly interested in language access in maternal health, and we are planning to expand to hold stakeholder meetings in Western Kansas.”

For more information on Alce Su Voz, visit