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When You Don’t Speak Your Patient’s Language

Many parts of the US are becoming more culturally diverse. No surprise then, that attempts to communicate with patients who speak a different language can lead to crucial miscommunications that affect care. A study in Nursing2018 by Smith and Dent[1] notes that when an interpreter is not present to facilitate dialogue, “patients feel that healthcare staff ‘didn’t tell me much’” and that they “believe they aren’t receiving all the important information they need.”

When is it okay to employ the help of an untrained interpreter (eg, the patient’s friend, family member, or untrained hospital bilingual staffer) when you and your patient are struggling to communicate? When should you call in a trained interpreter? The guidelines aren’t clear.

To help, Smith and Dent have created a flowchart for nursing staff who work in medical-surgical unit at acute care hospitals.  That flowchart, which you can access here, quickly walks you through various scenarios.

The authors also offer these general tips if you are caring for a patient who needs an interpreter:

  • Speak directly to the patient — not to the interpreter.
  • Allow extra time during your assessment to convey information via the interpreter — information about the patient’s progress, educational information, etc.
  • Encourage other clinicians to use interpretation services when they assess a patient. The nurse can schedule a time for interpreter and clinician to be at the patient’s bedside during rounds, with the goal of enhancing patient safety and understanding.

Last updated on 9/14/19.

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