Whether in a foreign country or locally, it is common to be faced with people from different backgrounds. HCPs may have a command of more than one language, but what if none of these is a language that the patient is familiar with?

The interpreter

Not all institutions employ the services of a professional interpreter because of financial constraints, or the fact that patients are usually accompanied by someone who could do the translating. Not being able to understand the patient is a very difficult obstacle, as any misinterpretations can lead to dire mistakes. It may not just be us who misunderstands, but the patient as well. Miscommunication will get in the way of proper healthcare, and an unbiased interpreter there could help to provide the correct insights.

Speaking the same language where possible

When working in a healthcare setting filled with people of different cultures, it is truly advantageous to be bilingual, multilingual and even a polyglot if possible. More often than not, a common language is present but it is not always the language the patient feels most comfortable with.

The patient feels at ease if they get to speak their mother tongue. It is not only to be able to convey their health issues in a smoother manner but it also provides a certain sense of comfort as well. This nurse remembers a Caucasian patient who came in about bowel issues. He spoke English very well but would randomly pepper some German words in the conversation. When the nurse answered him in German, he gave a big smile and expressed his relief on being able to speak German instead.

Researchers at Wayne State University found that when the patient and the provider speak the same language, there is less confusion and the quality of healthcare provided is therefore better.

The complexities of communication

Speaking the language is one thing but understanding the culture is another. These two tend to go hand in hand because besides knowing how to ask about abdominal pain or compliance to medicines, knowing cultural practices is needed as well. Multilingual and multicultural hospital settings make communication more complex.

It is true that we cannot be expected to know every culture's practices but we need to remain open minded and remain alert to possible cues. It is best to learn as much of these as possible, in order to avoid being offensive even by accident, as this will add onto the difficulties of communicating with patients. It is necessary to honor our patient’s personal beliefs as this is an important aspect of good health care.

Day in and day out, healthcare professionals are faced with many challenges, and multilingual and multicultural settings makes it no easier. There are many tools such as translator apps, online sources on different cultures and the sort and all that needs to be done is to push oneself to learn more. Remain culturally sensitive and open minded, to avoid getting lost in translation. MIMS

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L Haffner, "Translation is not enough. Interpreting in a medical setting", West J Med. 1992 Sep; 157(3): 255–259.
H. M. Gonzalez, W. A. Vega, W. Tarraf. Health Care Quality Perceptions among Foreign-Born Latinos and the Importance of Speaking the Same Language. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2010; 23 (6): 745