Doctor Dialogue

Doctor-Patient Communication: 8 Tips for Hispanic Patients to Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare

To overcome language barriers with doctors and other healthcare providers, there are a few things you can do as a patient to improve your doctor-patient communication. And studies have shown- establishing clear communication means a healthier, happier you!

Have a language barrier when visiting the doctor? Don’t worry!

Communication is one of the most important tools in any human relationship. It is the foundation for how people show their wants, needs, and concerns in a given situation–including while in the doctor’s office. Without communication, there is a lack of understanding and a lack of trust, and when it comes to medical visits, those are two things you definitely need in the doctor-patient relationship.

For Hispanics, language barriers can be frustrating in a medical setting. National Library of Medicine materials shows language barriers between patients and medical staff have huge impacts on the type and quality of care patients receive. Some patients end up getting too few tests or too many;  prescriptions side-effects may not be understood; symptoms can be missed; emergency room visits escalate, and a decreased use of primary care and follow-up treatment can result from language barrier confusion and frustration.

What should I do if I have a language barrier?

Dealing with a language barrier at the doctor’s can be difficult, but ignoring the issue could result in an incorrect diagnosis or improper treatment. Remember, it is your right and your responsibility to make sure information is provided in a way you understand.

Hospitals and medical facilities around the country are making strides toward eliminating language barriers. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has outlined steps medical facilities can take toward providing better care for those who don’t speak English as a primary language. These steps also show Hispanics there are options available to them when they go to the doctor, and  these include:

8 Tips for patients that have a language barrier

Ask for a translator: Large hospitals may have translators hired specifically to help Hispanics communicate with non-Hispanic staff.

Ask for a bilingual staff member: Just because your doctor doesn’t speak Spanish doesn’t mean another staff member won’t. Hospitals are equal opportunity employers, and there is a good chance a staff member–even in another department–speaks Spanish.

Bring a family member of a friend to translate: Having a family member or a trusted friend who can translate not only provides a sense of support but can also help bridge any communication gaps with medical staff.

Request a bilingual physician: Before you commit to a specific doctor, ask around to see if there are any bilingual physicians to see you.

Look for bilingual materials: Reading and researching on your own can help you communicate better with your doctor. Ask for bilingual pamphlets on what was discussed during the examination.

Ask questions: Always ask questions, even if you don’t think they come out the way you intend. The more you ask, the more information you have to go on if you are unsure what the doctor is explaining.

Seek community support from promotores de salud: Some Hispanic communities have health care aides, known as promotores, available for Spanish-speaking patients. The Office of Minority Health states promotes “play an important role in promoting community-based health education and prevention in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate.” Depending on the services available, promoteres will often accompany Hispanics to their doctor appointments if necessary.

Don’t stay silent: A lack of communication with your doctor is a recipe for disaster. Your doctor needs to understand your symptoms and emotional health just as much as you need to understand your treatment options and your medication warnings.  If you know you have a language barrier, do what you can to eliminate it, and remember: doctors and their staff are there to help, in every way, and that includes overcoming language barriers. Ask for help if you don’t understand something. Silence and frustration–from you or your doctor– will accomplish nothing.

With so many ways language can impede our ability to get the best medical care possible, it’s crucial to have strategies for connecting everyone.

Final Thoughts

Language barriers can be a challenge, but working with people of different cultures, backgrounds, and mental capacities is what drives innovation, creativity, and success. Don’t let language barriers stand in the way of your health!