I recently visited Costa Rica where the native language is Spanish. Despite my high school Spanish classes and a few lessons in Babbel, I was rusty, to say the least. I got by on simple interactions like ordering food or getting a taxi, but with more complicated exchanges, I felt lost, frustrated, and misunderstood. When the stakes are low I can wing it or possibly turn to Google Translate. But when the stakes are high like understanding the zip lining instructor, so I don’t fall to my death from 600 feet above the jungle, I need to understand every word and be able to ask clarifying questions.
Whenever I experience a language barrier like I did in Costa Rica, I’m reminded that in healthcare, we are speaking a foreign language not easily understood by anxious patients and their loved ones. Healthcare jargon is confusing and overwhelming to those outside the medical professions. It is important that we speak in terms they will understand, whether we are speaking directly to them or each other in front of them.
The Consequences of Healthcare Jargon
I’ll never forget a patient telling me that she felt excluded and devalued when the doctor and nurse discussed her care plan using terminology she didn’t understand while standing over her bed. Although it may have been unintentional, that was the patient’s perception. She told me, “They talked like I wasn’t in the room, or they didn’t care if I understood or not. That’s just rude.”
Here are a few tips for breaking the language barrier:
- Avoid jargon including acronyms in front of the patient. Healthcare professionals’ conversations can sound like alphabet soup.
- If you do need to speak in medical terms to other team members in front of a patient, translate. Say something like, “Dr. Jenson and I were just talking about the blood tests she wants to order to help her understand your symptoms better.”
- Watch for non-verbal cues that the patient is confused or concerned about what is said.
- Use open-ended questions to invite their questions. Instead of, “Do you have any questions?” ask, “What questions can I answer for you?”
- Remember that many hospitals and clinics post results to the portal where patients can access them. Be aware and prepared to translate.
Communication is at the heart of a trusting relationship. Help build trust by speaking their language.bedside manner, Communication, Patient Experience