UCT’s Xhosa and Afrikaans language immersion programmes boost patient/doctor relationships

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When Dr Morné Kahts walks into the surgical ward at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, the eyes of patient Lucky Felisono light up. “Heita Lucky,” says Kahts, to which the Atlantis security guard responds, “Heita daar”. Then the doctor examines the surgical wound on the security guard’s neck and asks: “Uziva njani ngoku … kusebuhlungu? (How do you feel now … is it still sore)?”

“Ndifuna ukugoduka ngoku … ndiziva ndingcono kakhulu. (I want to go home now … I feel much better),” Felisono replies.

A report in The Times says that even though Kahts, 29, and Felisono, 30, were brought up in post-apartheid South Africa, it is unusual for a young white doctor to address his black patient this way. Not only is he greeting him informally, but conversing with a patient in his mother tongue is rare.

The report says Kahts’s fluency in Xhosa is thanks to the language immersion programme at the University of Cape Town Medical School, which gives English-speaking students the chance to live with an Afrikaans- or Xhosa-speaking health worker for two-and-a-half weeks while doing research at a community clinic. The experience, during which they are banned from speaking a word of English unless there is an emergency, allows them to integrate culturally and socially with their host families and community.

UCT family medicine head Professor Derek Hellenberg, who helped to start the programme for second-year students nine years ago, said its aim was to create equitable communication between health professionals and patients. It is a strand of the “becoming a doctor” study course, which requires medical students at UCT to learn Afrikaans or Xhosa during their training – and which has recently been expanded to include sign language.

“Through this programme we see students taking a holistic view of their patients. We hope that knowing their patients’ culture and social environment will go a long way in improving intercultural relationships between these English-speaking doctors and the communities they serve,” said Hellenberg.

According to the report, it’s worked for Kahts, who said: “Speaking with my patients in a language they understand makes my life as a doctor so much easier. It’s easy to establish rapport and it just opens the gates of communication in a different way. Patients relate to you so much better when addressing them in their mother tongue and don’t feel so distant from the treating doctor. It takes away those invisible barriers.”

Dr Ian van Rooyen, an Afrikaans convenor of the “becoming a doctor” course, said other programmes included Afrikaans and Xhosa grammar courses and the integration of languages into bedside teaching for fourth-year and fifth-year students.

The bedside programme requires students to communicate with their patients for about seven weeks, take medical history and give feedback in Xhosa or Afrikaans. Van Rooyen said that by the time they left medical school, most students were so confident that they no longer needed interpreters, who posed a threat to doctor-patient confidentiality.

“We are trying to produce independent language users and have self-sufficiency,” he said.

The Times report (subscription needed)

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