News, Issue 8 June 2011

Spotlight Interview: Dr. Ramón Ribes

Pioneer and editor of books that help non-English speaking physicians understand medical terms in English

Doctor and lawyer, Ramón Ribes is an interventional radiologist at the Hospital Universitario Reina Sofia in Cordoba, Spain. In 2006 he launched a pioneering initiative of publishing books to help non-English speaking physicians understand medical terms in English. His first book, Medical English (published in 2006), is an international best-seller. Radiological English followed in 2007 and in 2010 the Learning Images series was launched. Author Zone spoke to Dr. Ribes to find out more about his publishing and training initiatives.

Dr. Ribes, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can we first ask about your initiative of promoting the importance for physicians to understand medical terms in English? What prompted you to explore this initiative in the first instance?

The idea first began to develop back in 1999 when I was a fellow in Boston, working with Dr. Pablo Ros at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital / Harvard Medical School. I’m a radiologist and I began to notice the difficulty that my non-English speaking peers were experiencing in understanding English medical terms. I started to work on the idea of creating a book that explained common medical expressions and words in English and the context in which they should be used. The book, Medical English, was published 5 years later. This lead to the series Medical Terms in English that now comprises 8 books.

What were the particular problems that non-English speaking medical professionals were experiencing?

One of the key problems with medical vocabulary in general is its large size. Each area and specialty of medicine has its own unique set of words, e.g. medical terms used in psychiatry are completely different to those used in orthopedics. So, not only do non-native English speaking doctors need to understand the different medical terms in their own language, but they also need to understand them in English, which is not an easy task!

At the same time, patients will explain a medical complaint in their own words; they will rarely use (or even know) the medical term for the complaint they are describing. This presents another set of problems. Physicians need to know not only “formal” medical terms, but also the common English words that patients use to describe their maladies. Unless doctors have knowledge of all the possible terms that could be used in medical English, it would be hard for them to understand what patients are complaining about.

To what extent do you think that these issues were (or are) affecting scientific and medical progression? What impacts were they having on the career development of medical professionals too?

This is a good question as I think it is having a significant impact on the sharing of medical knowledge. The biggest problem is the fact that many non-English speaking doctors are not able to communicate their research findings or share their considerable knowledge with the global scientific community. Even those with a good understanding of English experience problems because once conversations and discussions move beyond the level of their knowledge of English, they are no longer able to continue participating in discussions with their colleagues. When this happens, they just stop attending conferences or engaging with other members of the scientific community. I think this is significantly hindering medical research and progress.

For example, doctors from many countries such as in Eastern Asia, make huge efforts to learn and understand medical English, even though the terminology can be particularly hard to grasp. Developing good medical English helps to overcome these problems at the same time as encouraging the globalization of medical research.

How do you approach writing your books? Do you work alone or with a team?

With our first book we set the structure and tone of the books to follow. Of course, at the time I didn’t realise how successful the book would be and that there would be a Medical English series.
The second book of the series, Radiological English, was co-written with Dr. Ros (also a radiologist), to ensure that the most relevant English terms and expressions for this specialty were included. Since then, books for different disciplines have been written by teams of experts. For example, we have worked with GPs to ensure that expressions patients might use to describe medical complaints are included in addition to working with subject specialists.

What types of information do the books cover? For example, are they focused on particular subject areas or do they offer a more general approach to understanding medical terms in English?

The books take a general approach to explaining English language versions of medical terminology for the subject specialty and then focus more specifically on particularly problematic areas.
Usually main language problems are not in the official medical terminology but in the jargon used by colleagues and patients. Just giving a patient some simple instructions prior to a medical procedure, such as “roll up your shirt sleeve” can be problematic if the doctor does not know how to communicate this properly.

Do you offer any further support to medical professionals / students in addition to the books?

Dr. Ros and I have organized courses in Spain to help medical professionals in general and radiologists in particular learn and understand medical English. We would like to extend these courses to medical professionals in other geographic regions. I think that both the European Congress of Radiology (ECR) and the Asian Oceanic Congress of Radiology (AOCR) would be excellent venues for such courses!

The ECR is a perfect example of the need to understand medical English; approximately 90% of ECR attendees are non-native English speakers. I mentioned earlier how hard it can be for non-native English speakers to understand medical terms in English but of course the pronunciation also presents problems.

I talked with Springer about creating an audiobook for each title of the Medical Terms in English series to help address this concern. As an example of why this is important, for non-native English speakers it is easier to understand the poor English of a non-English presenter than the English of a native speaker from the UK or US. The reason for this is simply because the non-English speaker will speak slower to make himself understood, whereas native English speakers tend to speak faster and with regional accents.

You recently attended a book signing at the European Society of Radiology's annual ECR Congress in Vienna earlier this year. What was that experience like?

It was fantastic! To be at the ECR in Vienna, dedicating books with Dr. Ros, my mentor, was an honor. It was great to meet people who have read our books and to learn about their experiences. It was also interesting to hear their ideas as to how the books could be improved.

Finally, are you working on any more books or projects at the moment that you can tell us about?

I have now been involved with three book series; Medical Terms in English which comprises 8 books, Learning Diagnostic Imaging which comprises 10 books, and the recently launched series, Imaging for Clinicians.

Dr. Ramón Ribes

Doctor and lawyer, Ramón Ribes is an interventional radiologist at the Hospital Universitario Reina Sofia in Cordoba, Spain. In 2006 he launched a pioneering initiative of publishing books to help non-English speaking physicians understand medical terms in English. His first book, Medical English (published in 2006), is an international best-seller. Radiological English followed in 2007 and in 2010 the Learning Images series was launched. Author Zone spoke to Dr. Ribes to find out more about his publishing and training initiatives.