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6 Tips for Communicating with Non-English Speaking Patients

Apr 12, 2017

The number of non-native English speakers in the United States now includes over 60 million people – nearly triple the number from just three decades ago. Spanish and Chinese are the most popular foreign languages spoken in U.S. homes.

With nearly one-in-five Americans speaking another language at home, medical professionals are bound to come across patients with whom it is difficult to communicate. Employing a medical interpreter is vital for situations like this, but it’s not just the interpreter who matters. You can play an active role in helping to make your non-English speaking patients more comfortable by following these six tips:

1.   Learn a few polite expressions

A simple ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’ in the patient’s native language will go a long way toward improving your relationship and building trust.

2.   Avoid slang

Use standard English to make sure your explanations and instructions will be understood correctly.

3.  Keep it simple

The shorter the explanation, the better. Aim for words and phrases that are simple to understand and easily translated. Long explanations could lead the interpreter to summarize your words in a way that doesn’t fully express what you’re trying to say. At the same time, be careful not to patronize your patient!

4.  Speak in full sentences

You may think it’s helpful to stop mid-sentence to allow the translator to catch up, but doing so may put information out of context and lead to a confusing or inaccurate oral translation.

5.  Be culturally sensitive

Topics such as death, sexuality and women’s health must be addressed with care and respect. Also be careful about making jokes that might not translate well (or appropriately) into your patient’s native language.

6.  Look at the interpreter

It’s very important to stay engaged while the interpreter is translating your words. Don’t look through charts, talk to others in the room or stare out the window. Instead, signal your interest by facing the interpreter while they’re talking.

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