The Importance of Getting Health Care That Speaks Your Language

Erica Gunderson | December 19, 2020, 5:30 pm

When you’re having health problems, clear communication with health care providers is crucial to understanding treatment. And while medical jargon can seem like its own language, for the estimated 25 million people in the U.S. with limited English proficiency, finding health care that speaks their language is even tougher.

Dr. Pilar Ortega, a medical educator focusing on medical Spanish and a researcher on physician communication in non-English languages at University of Illinois Chicago Medicine, says that it’s not simply a matter of preference for patients to have clinicians that understand them.

We have research showing it affects patient outcomes. You can have better clinical outcomes — for example, better blood sugar control if you have diabetes — if your doctor speaks the same language as you,” said Ortega. “So we’re not just talking about [that] it feels good to have a doctor who speaks your language (which is true!) it also makes an impact in your health.”

Dr. Jonathan Moreira, a hematologist, oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says that today, technology is helping some for providers bridge the gap.

“Mobile services can provide flexible and readily available language services in ambulatory and inpatient settings. In-person interpreter services may be more challenging to provide, particularly in underserved and/or rural areas, but are ideal as they can also contextualize body language,” said Moreira.

Ortega says COVID-19 has presented a clear example of how language barriers contribute to health care outcomes.

“If we don’t receive the information in our language, or at least we don’t receive it in a timely fashion — oftentimes information gets translated from English and it takes a considerable amount of time for it to be available in non-English languages — and as a result those populations are not necessarily having access to the same trustworthy information from public health authorities as the English-speaking population is,” Ortega said. “This feeds into the distrust, because there is truly a lack of information, and as a result, may allow other sources of misinformation and disinformation to play a larger role in those communities due to the lack of other sources of information. So having physicians and other health professionals communicate with patients in their language in a timely fashion, especially in cases like this, will certainly have an impact on uptake of the vaccine.”

Moreira believes the best way to engender trust in medical professionals in the long term is for those professionals to reflect the communities they serve.

“There might be misunderstandings as to how patients or community members perceive medicine such as antibiotics or the belief in alternative remedies or, in my own field as an oncologist, in the role of chemotherapy and the perception of side effects as well,” said Moreira. “So … we really have to have a significant understanding of the cultural nuances and values and perspectives that our patients have, and one of the most effective ways of doing that is to recruit physicians and health care professionals that reflect that cultural diversity.”

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