Essential Medical Mandarin for Health Care Providers

Publication ID Published Volume
3180 July 21, 2009 5


The current healthcare setting is confounded by many problems. One of the most basic is the inability of physicians and patients to understand one another due to differences in language. As of 2000, over 46 million people in the United States do not speak English as their primary language and over 21 million speak English less than "very well." Given the direct role of clear communication to a strong relationship between physicians and their patients, this language barrier represents a serious problem for the delivery of quality care.
The Essential Medical Mandarin course was designed to address this problem. This is an intensive two-hour course that introduces the Chinese language to physicians and other health care providers, and exposes them to a select number of culturally relevant issues in the context of medicine. These topics include demographics, health concerns, healthcare beliefs and practices, and alternative therapy specific to the Chinese-speaking population. The first hour is dedicated to didactic learning in which the teachers present the basic courtesy expressions and survival questions necessary in a medical interview. The second hour is a small group interactive session during which students can enrich their experience by further polishing their Chinese pronunciation in a simulated patient-physician encounter.
These individuals are encouraged to learn additional phrases and vocabulary that are not covered in the first hour but are pertinent to their field of specialty during the small group session. All the teaching materials and reference flash cards are provided in a packet to encourage future self-directed learning. Altogether, this program is intended to equip healthcare professionals with the essential language skills that will ultimately allow them to take better care of their Chinese-speaking patients.

The EMM course was designed to equip participants with basic tools (such as pinyin pronunciation) and more comprehensive materials to encourage further practice with self-directed learning. The Medical Mandarin Program also provides small group session during the second hour of every EMM course for both new and past participants, since the lecture in the first hour of the EMM course remains relatively constant. In this way, past participants can benefit from continuous practice in small groups approximately once a month when the EMM courses take place. Participants are also invited to join the Regular Medical Mandarin (RMM) classes for medical students to provide continuity. To assess the effectiveness of the Essential Medical Mandarin course, we administered a 2-page survey at the end of each course. It consists of three sections: overall course quality assessment, participant experience, and participant background. From the 3 courses that were offered in spring of 2008, a total of 35 surveys were collected from the participants. Overall, participants gave the EMM a score of 4.63 out of 5 in terms of overall quality. When individual components of the course were assessed, Medical Terminology was ranked first, receiving the highest score (4.68 out of 5), while Pinyin Introduction received the lowest score (4.35 out of 5). These high ratings suggest that participants found the EMM course organized and well-taught. Under the participant experience section, all 35 students (100.00%) indicated that they would recommend the EMM course to their colleagues, while 34 participants (95.00%) would attend another session. These results further signify that participants found the EMM course valuable and worthwhile. Based on these results, we have developed a compact disc containing a video of the course lecture, to be distributed along with course packets for participants to review, as well as for people interested in the EMM course but were unable to attend.

Implementation of the Essential Medical Mandarin course requires teachers fluent in Mandarin. All of our teachers were medical students who successfully completed the advanced Regular Medical Mandarin class and demonstrated competency in all of the areas covered in the presentation. In addition, teachers should have a basic understanding of the Chinese culture and beliefs regarding disease processes and medicine in general. Group leaders should be able to provide more specific vocabulary sets pertaining to the participants' specialty during the second hour of the course. To facilitate learning during the presentation, paper copies of the PowerPoint slides are distributed in the packet, on which participants can take notes. Beyond the two-hour course, supplemental materials such as pocket-sized language cards, enlarged versions of the language cards, and interactive language charts for patient communication are provided as additional tools for reference. We continually modified the ways in which the material was presented over the three courses to create the most effective classroom learning experience. To teach an inherently difficult language in a short amount of time, we emphasized the framework of the Mandarin language, and the construction of a foundation off of which future skills could be more easily acquired. Thus, rather than introducing numerous vocabulary and phrases, we structured the curriculum to help familiarize students with the four tones, provide key ways to pronounce common consonants and vowels, and emphasize the mastering of the basic phrases for the clinic. After the lecture, the participants were divided into small groups each with an instructor and then given the opportunity to practice, review, and work on phrases pertinent to their areas of expertise. We found that this strategy, distilling a vast amount of information followed by small group sessions tailored to individual needs, was very effective for reinforcing basics as well as to build new and more relevant vocabulary. In addition to teaching the technical aspects of the language, we also found that beginning with a cultural framework of their Chinese-speaking patients was valuable, as evidenced by positive feedback from the participants. Trimming the vast amounts of information down and highlighting clinically relevant information appeared to be useful and well-accepted among the participants.


Zhang C, Sangarlangkarn A, Luo D, et al. Essential medical mandarin for health care providers. MedEdPORTAL Publications. 2009;5:3180.

Contains Information Suitable for Patient Education

Educational Objectives

  1. To be able to recognize culturally relevant issues that can facilitate communication between health care providers and their Chinese-speaking patients.
  2. To be able to demonstrate proper pronunciation and usage of basic Chinese medical expressions.
  3. To be able to utilize support and resources to encourage future self-directed learning.


  • Mandarin, Chinese, Language

Prior Scholarly Dissemination

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ISSN 2374-8265