Healthcare News & Insights

Best practices to care for patients with limited English proficiency

Communicating the ins and outs of healthcare and treatment to patients is hard enough without a language barrier. While complex medical jargon may sound like another language to many patients, even relatively simple conversations may be difficult when patients have limited proficiency in English. 

One common solution is to hire a medical interpreter, but that person won’t always be present – and may not speak every language your patients do. That’s why it’s important to make sure staff members are aware of the best ways to clearly communicate with patients who may not understand English.

You already know this, but your staff may need the reminder: Just because people aren’t familiar with English doesn’t mean they’re less deserving of understanding their treatment and care, so emphasize patience and empathy among staff members.

Keep in mind that a hospital stay or visit is scary enough when patients understand everything they’re being told. With the added language barrier, putting those patients at ease becomes extra important.

Communicating without English

There are several ways your employees can improve the experience of patients who aren’t English-proficient. Morningside Translations offers these tips:

  1. Learn greetings and other expressions. Even a simple “Hello” or “How are you doing?” in their native language can help patients feel more comfortable at your hospital. If your facility is in an area with a high population of Spanish speakers, for example, hosting an introductory training in Spanish greetings and phrases for your employees can go a long way.
  2. Stay away from slang. English is hard enough without all the idioms and other traps. Your employees should make an effort to stick to standard English when explaining details of treatment to patients and their families.
  3. Simplicity is key. Diving deep into complex medical terminology will just muddy the waters and confuse patients even more. But remember: there’s a fine line between using simple terms and patronizing patients, so staff should be mindful of the difference. Being patronizing can dissolve any trust that’s been built.
  4. Be aware of cultural sensitivities. Non-Western cultures have different views and norms surrounding a range of topics, including death and sexual health. Staff must be respectful of those differences. This may include doing things like finding a nurse or doctor of the same gender to provide treatment or offering different meal options.

Prioritize respect

One thing that transcends all barriers? Respect.

It’s critical to make sure staff members are showing respect for all patients, no matter the language they speak, because a lack of respect will translate.

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  1. Good information. In addition, it is very important to always use qualified medical interpreters. For details please see:

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