If there is one thing I am certain of on the subject of patient experience, it’s that compassion, and the behaviors associated with it, is a universal language. Anyone who works in healthcare is likely to be presented with patients from other cultures with their own traditions, norms, and language. We all get a bit intimidated by language barriers, but they don’t have to stop you from showing compassion. Eye contact, a smile, and a tender touch can all go a long way in communicating that you care even when you don’t speak the language.
I was recently on a snorkeling trip around Antigua when I was alerted to an urgent situation with a fellow passenger. He had gotten tossed around in the waves and had been badly scraped up on sharp coral, and a large area of his back had been burned on fire coral. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t know any Czech, which was his native tongue. I could tell he was in pain and frightened. I had enough first aid supplies to adequately clean his wounds and calm the burning, but I saw the greatest response from just being with him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and letting him know he wasn’t alone. With the help of the crew and his son, we made him comfortable. Once he was patched up and laying comfortably on the bench at the back of the boat, I went to take my seat at the front of the boat. Before leaving, I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. He took my hand in both of his and smiled. Although we couldn’t understand the words, he knew I was comforting him, and I knew he was thanking me.
Language barriers are challenging in healthcare settings. Of course we need translators to relay crucial medical information, but the most common day-to-day challenges I hear about involve housekeeping and dietary staff who speak minimal English. Leaders often ask me how to handle this. I strongly encourage them to teach key phrases, which will improve the patient experience, but even more importantly—help your staff feel comfortable communicating in a universal language of compassion. Remind them that even though the words may not get through, a smile, touch and small gestures let a patient know she is seen and cared about. That form of communication is invaluable and is something the staff can do with confidence.
Infants begin eliciting a “social smile” at only six weeks of age. Their ability to make eye contact and smile back to adults interacting with them sends a strong message and increases bonding. A smile, touch, and other gestures of kindness cross all cultural boundaries and languages and go a long way in nurturing others.