Making healthcare more accessible through translation

Kitty Quintanilla is a second year medical student at Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Here, she shares why she’s passionate about increasing access to free information.

Kitty Quintanilla

Have you ever had your parents ramble at you about the “when I was young, we didn’t have all these computers and the internet and smartphones” thing? Mine have done it countless times, but they often sounded sad when they said it, wistful instead of condescending. A lot of older folk like to give our generation flak for using the internet as much as we do, but some like my parents wish they had this kind of thing growing up.

We have billions of pages of information at our fingertips, in seconds. It’s a modern miracle.

But among my family, a bunch of Latinos from El Salvador, there was a considerable portion of them that I noticed were under-educated, had grown up in rural towns and extreme poverty, in a third-world country that didn’t have a lot of technology at all—like basic electricity—let alone computers of any kind. Even now, in their forties, fifties, and sixties, they struggle with modern technology, and if they manage to figure out how to get Google open, they struggle to find things in the language they understand best.

I grew up translating things for my parents and family members. Countless people who didn’t speak or read English well enough to navigate this country or find the information and help they needed, so as I grew older, I found myself in another position of translation. I worked at Johns Hopkins doing pediatrics research, trialing a text-alert help system to help new, Latino mothers navigate their newborn children’s healthcare visits and needs, something to help break down the language barriers often present in healthcare. We hoped that once we had this system working, we could expand on it and even spread it farther, so hospitals all across the country could use similar templates for multiple languages, helping make the healthcare system a little easier to handle.

Look, healthcare is hard to navigate even for those of us who speak English. It must be even more terrifying and frustrating when you don’t speak English at all!

So I was delighted when I found out that the librarians at my medical school, Liz Lorbeer and Isaac Clark, wanted to create (and had been creating!) elective and projects to help translate medical resources into Spanish, and Spanish resources into English.

The more information we can make accessible to Spanish-speaking people, the more we can help those who consistently are left floundering in the U.S. healthcare system. My parents would be thrilled to discover that there were pages upon pages of information in their native tongue—and more importantly, at a level, they could understand. They didn’t have the benefit of a robust education system, and my father never even finished his equivalent of middle school, while my mother only had a high-school education. They always lament about their lack of education, their struggle with English as a second language, the way that the Salvadoran Civil War stole many opportunities and chances that others take for granted. They want to learn! They want to be able to search for information quickly and find what they are looking for. They want to make up for all the lost time.

For them to be able to learn at the click of a button, to open Wikipedia and find that the Spanish Wikipedia had pages on what they were looking for? That would be monumental.

I want to make all kinds of information more accessible for people like my parents: people who maybe do not know all the complicated jargon, or do not feel confident in their English, or want to read something simple and understandable in their native tongue. Wikipedia was created because of a desire to share knowledge and make it possible for anyone to learn, anyone to access and read, at the click of a button.

Our Wikipedia project was a fantastic chance to get to build something to help. I was delighted to get to help with creating the curriculum and syllabus for the elective, which would have students adding more information to Spanish Wikipedia articles, or even creating new ones! The English Wikipedia by far seems to have the most articles, but there is such a vast gap of knowledge between the different Wikipedias, with so many topics not covered in other languages.

There were plenty of things I realized while helping to work on the project, though. For one, I realize how badly I’ve always taken my course syllabi for granted, especially in undergrad. Having now achieved the amount of planning and detail-work that a syllabus requires has given me a completely new appreciation for every professor who has had to make one.

(I’m sorry, every single undergraduate professor whose syllabus I never read.)

The project also required a lot of testing—with me as a guinea pig, oh boy—to make sure it was feasible, and I also had to go about finding resources for students who maybe weren’t super fluent in Spanish. This is a translation course, but I was told to make it accessible and possible even for students who aren’t very fluent or bilingual, which was a challenge.  

If our particular project does become successful, I hope we can share how we’ve adapted the Wiki Education course template with other institutions and encourage their students to help in the endeavor to make medical information available, in even more languages than Spanish. Long story short, hopefully this project can be a step forward in the big grand goal of accessible information for everyone.

If you’re interested in having students write or translate Wikipedia articles as an assignment, use our free assignment templates and management tools! Visit for all you need to know to get started.


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