How to Communicate with Patients that Speak Another Language

How to Communicate with Patients that Speak Another Language

How to Communicate with Patients that Speak Another Language

May 21 2019

How to Communicate with Patients that Speak Another Language

Overcoming a Language Barrier to Provide the Best Care Possible

As a nation of immigrants, our country is diverse. As a medical professional, you are bound to come across patients with whom it is difficult to communicate with due to a language barrier. However, when treating patients it is important that you hear from them what their symptoms are. These tips will help you overcome a language barrier, allowing you to provide the best care possible for your patients, even when you do not speak the same language.

Learn Some Polite Expressions and Key Phrases

Try learning a few phrases, such as “good morning” or “thank you” in the patient’s native tongue. By doing this, you are showing a true interest in your patient and it can go a long way toward building trust with them. 

You should also learn some key anatomical terms or phrases in their native language, such as medication, heart, stomach, etc. Even though a full conversation may not be possible, you will still be able to communicate basic ideas to your patient.

To help you learn how to say these phrases or terms, find a friend, family member or coworker who might be able to help you. If you don’t know anyone who can help you, call up the foreign language department of a nearby university to find someone who can help you.

Keep it Simple

If your patient is able to understand a limited amount of your native tongue, make sure to keep your speech simple. Do not use slang terms and aim for using full sentences that are short and concise. Long explanations or sentences are not as easy to translate. Make sure that you speak in a clear and even tone, but do not speak too slowly or loudly, as this can be offensive. Never shout or exaggerate your syllables.  

You can also try using pictures to communicate if you are performing simple tasks. For example, showing a picture of food to ask if they are ready for lunch. Keep an illustration of the human body handy to help you explain treatment options. You can also show your blood pressure cuff to indicate you would like to take their blood pressure. Be sure to speak to them while doing this. Not only is it respectful to not remain mute, but also your patient may be able to learn simple phrases from you and be able to understand you later.

Use a Translator

If you are unable to speak with a patient, even in limited form, use a translator. Sometimes this can be a family member. Ensure that the translator is able to attend all of your visits. Again, keep your sentences simple and avoid slang. You might think it is helpful to stop midsentence or mid-thought to allow an interpreter to catch up, however this can lead to confusing or inaccurate translation. 

When the interpreter is speaking, make sure to look at him or her. Stay engaged and show interest. Do not look through charts or other things that may signal you are not interested in what the interpreter is saying. 

Be Culturally Sensitive

It is important to know that certain subjects, such as death, sexuality and women’s health are topics that should be addressed with care and respect. Also, do not make jokes as these can often be lost in translation, or may not even translate appropriately to your patient’s native language. 

You should also learn cultural faux pas. For example, elderly Filipinos may find it disrespectful when a healthcare worker addresses them only by their first name. This may seem like a waste of time or you may feel too busy to do this. However, it is important to take the time to understand your patient fully so that you can build a relationship based on trust. This will ensure that you will be able to provide the best care possible for them in the long run. 

Consider Learning a Second Language

Not only can learning a second language help you care for your patients better, but it can also make you a more desirable employee! Many healthcare organizations look for bi-lingual employees as part of their mission to provide the best care possible for all patients.  Choose a language that is needed in your area. Also, consider learning sign language to be able to better care for your hearing-impaired patients. Not only is learning a second language helpful, but it can also be fun!

When Giving Bad News…

If you must communicate bad news to a patient, always wait until an interpreter is available. Tact is especially crucial at a time when emotions run high. 

By following these tips, you will be able to offer better care to your patients who do not speak the same language as you. Not only will you get a better understanding of them as a person, but you will also be able to get needed information from them in order to create a care plan that works for them. And it also goes toward building trust with your patients, a key part of the patient-healthcare worker dynamic.