This week I wanted to talk about something that is very important in medicine: language.
How can doctors give their patients the best medical care if they do not speak the same language?
Well, of course, it is difficult. According to the AAFP, an interpreter is necessary if the physician and patient do not speak the same language fluently. An interpreter also may assist in explaining cultural differences. Although family members or friends are often the most convenient interpreters, the patient may not want to share what they are experiencing with that family member or friend, disabling them from being able to share what they need to with the doctor and receive the help that they need. Therefore, whenever possible, a trained medical interpreter or a bilingual staff member should act as the interpreter. To still interact and build trust with the patient, doctors can use universally-accepted body language to communicate with the patient. "Small talk” can also establish trust between the patient and the physician. Understanding cultural differences is also important for physicians. Patients sometimes will avoid eye contact with physicians if they are of a different gender or social status. Orthodox Jews and persons from some Islamic sects are not comfortable with opposite-sex touching (even handshaking). In these groups, it is best for patients to have a same-sex physician.
But, why is language so important?
No matter what language is spoken, a patient is a patient who needs to receive medical care. Every patient needs to have trust in their doctor, and often times this trust is built through conversation. But, when you can't understand what the doctor is saying, that can lead to some problems. Not only can the doctor not fully understand what is going on with the patient, but the patient may not feel comfortable with sharing their symptoms with the doctor. Therefore, understanding, acknowledging, and using resources such as an interpreter are all important steps in bridging the gap between doctors and patients who speak different languages.