The Best Way to Overcome the English Language Barrier in Hospital

If you’re ill and need to access the healthcare system you need somebody with you who can speak English. This is especially important when you first come into the hospital.  In many North American communities there are people who have been a resident for 20 years or more who don’t speak conversational English.  This is fine if you work with others who speak your language and if you’re going to be doing your banking, and shopping in your community that supports your cultural heritage.  However, when you leave your community it becomes a hindrance.

We see it time and time again when someone from a non-English speaking culture becomes a patient and is either alone or the family member also does not speak English.  Staff has to find someone from somewhere in the hospital who speaks their language. The problem with this is they may not be a registered nurse or a doctor.  If they don’t have a medical background the information the English-speaking nurse or doctor is telling the patient and their families may not be translated correctly.  Sometimes as a last resort we may have to ask housekeeping or the kitchen staff to do the translation, but their availability is limited.  Even the “Google Translate “ app, as good as it is, only has basic utility. 

So it’s very important that non-English speaking patients have somebody readily available who will advocate for them in English. It’s also better if they have more than one person who would be available. The English speaking person has to be willing to stay in the hospital for the first 24 hours that the patient is hospitalized, and depending on the gravity of the situation they may have to stay for a longer time.

For example:

A non-English speaking patient with a brain injury or who’s had an operation on any part of their brain would find it very difficult to communicate how much pain they are in or if they feel their symptoms are getting worse.  A nurse would be assessing the patient hourly to see if their level of consciousness is appropriate.  The nurse may have been given basic words on how to ask the patient to show their thumb or wiggle their toes in their language.  However, after many hours of this, patient’s simply become exhausted and could be drowsy for the current assessment.  The nurse may opt to only look into the patient’s pupils and if they haven’t changed in size, wait for another hour in which to make sure the patient shows their thumb or wiggles their toes. However, within that time frame the patient could go sour. 

If the patient had spoken English the nurse could have asked them why they’re not wiggling their toes or showing a thumb or encouraged them to obey another command. But because of the language barrier, it could take longer to realize if the patient was just very sleepy or going into a dangerous coma.   If a family member who spoke English was accessible either at the bedside or nearby, it would’ve been much easier for them to ask the patient to obey and to notice a change in their behaviour and tell the nurse or doctor of their concerns. This is a great help if it is a new staff member taking care of the patient and the patient is still very sick. 

Your advocacy for your relative will help overcome the language barrier if they become hospitalized. Plan for the future, sign up on our home page and get your free “Hospital Handbook”. Have a discussion with your family member about it now, not later. It would be the best thing you could do for them.