Developing Bilingual Pharmacists to Break Down Barriers

A Hispanic pharmacist fills a prescription.

Ashley Mendez’s family fled Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s rise to power and settled in Miami, rebuilding their life from scratch — with little money, few possessions and no ability to speak English.

Watching her family, Ashley understood from a young age how difficult even the simplest tasks could be when you didn’t speak the same language as everyone else. That was particularly true for health care: Ashley and her family believe her grandmother’s death may have been caused in part by miscommunication over the painkiller she was taking for a pinched nerve.

So when it came time to choose a career, Ashley knew exactly what she wanted to do — and where she wanted to do it. She wanted to be a pharmacist and she wanted to work somewhere she could help people who didn’t speak English.

It was the way she could honor her grandmother.

“She was one of the most influential people in my life,” says Ashley. “If we had known more about what was going on, we could have helped her.”

There are many different barriers that prevent people from getting the health care they need: They may live in an area without the right providers, they may lack the transportation to travel to the right facility, they may not have enough money to afford the right treatment.

But one critical barrier that frequently gets overlooked is the language barrier.

According to the U.S. Census Department, the number of residents who speak Spanish at home has skyrocketed 130 percent since 1990, up to about 40 million. That increase has created an overwhelming demand for bilingual pharmacists — but the supply has not kept pace. While Hispanics comprise 18 percent of the nation’s population, they account for less than 5 percent of the pharmacist workforce.

Ashley, 27, is part of CVS Health’s effort to close the gap. She spent the summer of 2017 in an immersive internship program that seeks to help develop bilingual pharmacists. Interns spend 10 weeks shadowing pharmacists who are fluent in Spanish and participating in the care of Spanish-speaking patients. They learn medical terminology, study diseases prevalent in the Hispanic community, and become familiar with the over-the-counter products most popular among Hispanic customers.

The program is an illustration of the company’s belief that you can’t build healthy communities unless you have a workforce that reflects those communities.

“People are looking for a pharmacist they feel comfortable talking to,” says Alex Acuna, 26, another intern in the program, who attended the University of Texas at Austin.

Alex grew up in an El Paso neighborhood that was 80 percent Latino, and in a household where his mother regularly spoke Spanish. But although he could speak a fair amount of Spanish himself, communicating technical details to his Spanish-speaking customers was difficult. Nuances were being lost in translation. In normal conversation, those nuances could be insignificant. When talking about treatments and medication, they could be critical.

Alex knew he had to learn “pharmacy Spanish,” as he described it.

“When was first starting, my Spanish was a little broken,” he says.  “Saying something a certain way could mean something different to a patient.”

The internship program is one of several efforts from CVS Health to address the language gap. Last year, CVS Health gave the Roseman University College of Pharmacy $25,000 to fund Hispanic recruitment and outreach initiatives and establish a pipeline of Spanish-speaking students.

Alex, who earned his license in May, is working now back in his hometown of El Paso. He says he’s grateful to be able to give back to the community that raised him.

Ashley, who attended Florida State University as an undergraduate and studied pharmacy at Mercer University in Atlanta, says she’d love to go back to Miami, where she grew up and where she served her internship.

But she also knows that in Florida, she’ll be one among many Spanish speakers — and that she might do more for the Latino community by staying where she is now.

“There’s a need for Spanish speakers in Atlanta,” she says. “You can tell that the language barrier is a big issue.”

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.