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How do I deal with a non-English speaking patient?

If you think you’re frustrated trying to communicate with a non-English-speaking patient, just imagine how scared and overwhelmed he must feel. He’s sick, vulnerable—and surrounded by people jabbering in a language he may not understand.

Step One: Check your frustration at the door. Your patient needs your care and compassion at least as much as any other patient on the floor.

Step Two: Involve a translator ASAP. If at all possible, rely on a formal translator instead of a family member. Asking a family member to translate delicate questions such as “Did you have a BM today?” can cause much embarrassment on the part of both family members.

If your non-English-speaking patient speaks a language common to your area, you may already have a translator—or an employee fluent in his native language—on staff. If not, check which translation services are available through your hospital; most can provide translators with at least 24 hours’ notice. Many hospitals also subscribe to Language Line, a 24-hour, toll-free telephone translation service.

Step Three: Take the time to learn a few words in the patient’s native tongue. Saying “Hola” rather than “Hello” helps develop rapport and increase trust. You might also want to consider learning words such as “pain” and phrases such as “How are you feeling?” Any effort towards understanding them—as minimal as it may be—shows empathy for their situation and helps develop trust in the eyes of the patient.

Step Four: Use hand gestures and demonstrations to fill the gap. Instead of relying on verbal and written materials, use lots of demonstrations to teach your patient and family about his care.

Step Five:
Read up on your patient’s culture. The language barrier is one thing, but there may be nonverbal issues, such as looking (or not looking) the patient directly in the eye. Culturally sensitive care is in everyone’s best interest.

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2 Responses to How do I deal with a non-English speaking patient?

  1. I recently had a patient whose family had specific prayer times that they were practicing in the room. Although I had to enter if there was a dire need relating to the patient’s care I would, but otherwise I tried to respect their prayers times as often as I could by not interrupting. Also, I had a patient one time that was non-English speaking but all communication for the child was to be done through the male figure in the family- part of their custom, and it was considered rude to speak to the woman. All these considerations should be made.

  2. Another thing to remember is although the patient may not speak your language, they are not hearing-impaired most likely. I cannot even count the amount of times I have seen nurses, docs, and others speaking very loudly to a patient that is non English speaking.

    This can be seen as disrespectful, and caregivers should try their best to use a translator. Although it could be more inconvenient and time-consuming, using a translator will ensure that communication is mutual and care will be improved.