Overcoming Communication Barriers with Non-English Patients

Dynamic Language | December 26, 2018

Over the past 15 years, the number of ESL/no English patients that doctors have been seeing has increased exponentially. With this in mind, here is a list of best practices for communicating with ESL patients that doctors, and other healthcare professionals, should keep in mind when confronted with an ESL/no English patient.

Do You Have the Staff?

This, perhaps, is one of the first hurdles that medical professionals need to scale when communicating with ESL patients: Is the staff available and equipped to handle the language barrier? Not every medical professional can afford to have an interpreter on staff, especially on a full-time basis. However, that doesn’t mean that non-English speaking patients could — or should — be turned away. Whether you choose to contract out interpreting services, or not here are some ways to bridge the communication gap

Be Patient

One of the first things medical professionals need to keep in mind is that English is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. Many languages — especially the Romance languages, such as Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese — are “spelled the way they sound.” In other words, they’re phonetic languages. English, on the other hand, is not a phonetic language — for example, the word “through” and the word “cough” do not rhyme, even though they end with the same letters — and this makes it difficult for a non-English speaker to understand how to communicate effectively. Being patient, then, is key to good communication.

Keep It Simple

As medical professionals, doctors are often tempted to use big words to describe what’s wrong with their patients. The very profession demands that they be as technical as possible when talking about diagnoses, cures and medicines. However, when communicating with ESL patients, the biggest one can make is using big words to explain otherwise simple concepts. Whenever possible, use the simplified term (i.e., “heart attack,” not “myocardial infarction”).

Communication is a Two-Way Street

This is a good general rule, no matter the profession, but when a medical professional is communicating with ESL patients, it’s even more crucial to remember this important rule. Make sure that the patient understands the gist of what is being said — and this is rather easy to do. Simply asking, “Do you understand?” after each important point is key to recognizing that the patient does comprehend what is happening and how best to come to a solution to their pending problem.
But more than just asking a patient if they understand, it’s crucial for the medical professional to ensure that the patient comprehends what was said. To that end, asking the patient to tell the medical professional in his/her own words what was said is the ideal way to ensure that the matter is being handled properly.

Show, Don’t Tell

Finally, but certainly no less importantly, it’s important for the medical professional to demonstrate — with actions — what is going on with the patient. While words can get “lost in translation,” actions are understandable in any language. For example, if a diabetes patient who is ESL or no English is required to take insulin injections, demonstrating this injection will go a long way in helping the patient comprehend what needs to be done.
The most important thing to remember when communicating with non-English patients is that they — like native English speaking patients — are human beings too, and getting them healthy is the most important end result.

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