Language is what brings us together. You might have infinite things in common with someone from Sweden but you’d never know about it or communicate with them because you speak different languages. On the other hand if you were on a trip to Sweden and met an English speaking person you’d probably end up as good friends with them simply because you both speak English and can relate to each other.
Language isn’t just about words but how you talk and the metaphors you use. If you’re an English speaker learning another language you’ll notice that there are certain expressions that you can’t just translate to the other language. In fact the language you speak can also influence your personality. Studies have shown that bilingual individuals have different personalities depending on the language they’re speaking.
In medicine language is essential and without it there can be no treatment or interference in a patient’s condition. You can understand that a person is hurting and in pain and some hand gestures may help as well, but there’s not much more. Acquiring a patient’s history is the foundation on which everything else you do for the patient is built. You’re visited by a German speaking woman who seems to be suffering from abdominal pain, is it colicky or dull aching? Is the pain intermittent or continuous? Does she have other symptoms such as diarrhea? This is all missing information that you can’t acquire because you don’t speak German and she doesn’t speak English. There are a lot of ways to face this issue.
For starters as a doctor you could learn another language. If you’re working in the United States then it’s probably best that you learn Spanish because a major portion of the U.S population speaks Spanish. This is especially true if you’re going to work near the south. If you’re going to work in Canada for instance then it’ll be important to learn French because French is the dominating language in a lot of cities in Canada. The United States and Canada are just two countries who primarily speak English but also have a second widespread language. It goes without saying that if you plan on traveling to Europe that you learn the language of the country you’re going to.
Learning a second language may seem like a chore but it’s really not. It can be a really fun experience that can add a lot to your life. By learning another language you won’t just benefit in the workplace but generally you’ll be able to communicate and connect with lots of people outside work and in the community. You can even connect with others online which is also one way to improve your secondary language. It’ll also open up a lot of literature in that language that you didn’t even know existed. It’s not even that hard because there are plenty of language tutors and you can also learn online or even through one of multiple applications that you can download on your phone.
The easy option, if you’re a director at the hospital or workplace, is to hire translators. Translators will save you the time of having to learn a new language yourself especially if you’re too busy which most doctors often are. A translator would also be a great asset to the hospital because he or she will be available to help all departments. It would also be a great idea to hire a translator who can speak several languages rather than just one or two. It’s better than hiring a Spanish translator for instance only for a French patient to end up visiting you with the language problem persisting.
There are of course a few drawbacks to hiring a translator. One of these like we discussed is getting a visit from a patient who speaks a language the translator doesn’t. Another is information getting lost in translation. Not everything can be directly translated or else all we’d need would be Google Translate. A translator who is neither native in your language nor the patient’s will most likely misunderstand certain expressions and terms. He also won’t have medical knowledge which includes familiar complaints patients may have so he won’t be able to infer what the patient actually means.
When we talk about communicating with people who speak different languages let’s not forget the deaf and mute who rely on sign language to communicate. I believe doctors should know how to speak sign language. For instance if there was an accident and the patient was alone without any family or friends who can translate between you too, what will you do? There’s no way for you to communicate with this patient who’s in a critical situation. If the patient is mute then they can’t even make sounds or approximate words that might sound familiar to you.
In Belgium a group of engineers have created a robotic arm that can translate sign language. You simply type in the words on your keyboard and the arm will translate them to sign language. So in a hospital you could have a group of pre-written questions that the arm is hooked up to and will immediately translate to the patient. It’s also very convenient since it can be 3D printed. A hospital could have two or three of these in case a situation arises where they’re needed.
When it comes to raising awareness it’s also important to include those who speak different languages than you do. If you’re working in California for instance you’d want to hang up informational postures and printed brochures that are written in both English and Spanish so the information you’re trying to provide also reaches Spanish speaking citizens. If you’re in Canada you’d want to do this in French as well. It would also be helpful during awareness campaigns to have someone who can translate the information you’re giving out to the other predominant language in that area or city. Of course it would be better if you can do that yourself. This would make everyone in the community feel involved and that you care about everyone’s health instead of having people feel left out due to language differences.
Hiring personnel of different backgrounds is another way to face the language barrier. If you hire people from Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European backgrounds then you don’t really have a language problem anymore because there will always be people in the hospital who speak different languages and will be available to help. These people are most likely going to be bilingual too so nothing will get lost in translation and they will fully understand the expressions being used by patients in relation to medicine especially if they’re doctors and nurses.
This will also be great for the hospital’s image and will show that it hires based on quality and work ethic and not on cultural background. In fact having a diverse staff will enrich the work environment’s culture with many people bringing the best of their cultures to display.
Not being able to help a patient because you don’t speak their language would be heartbreaking. Understanding that a patient has severe chest pain that radiates to their back would lead you to ordering a simple CT scan and detecting an aortic aneurysm but simply finding out that there’s chest pain would guide you to doing EKGs and cardiac enzymes searching for a myocardial infarction and by the time you rule it out it might be too late.
There are plenty of ways to overcome language differences and all are great and not difficult to do. Learning a language will open up more of the world to you and is actually fun to do. Hiring a translator is a practical solution to the problem and will help serve many patients. While hiring staff members of different backgrounds will add to the workplace and make it more fun and diverse. The important thing is to truly understand a patient and have them understand you in order to improve their quality of life as much as possible.