Language Barriers: Managing Them When Working With Patients

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By RNnetwork

June 5, 2023

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5 Ways to Manage Language Barriers When Working With Patients

RNNetwork provided this article.

Effective communication as a nurse not only allows you to do your job better but it also helps create a connection between you and your patient. That connection can help foster compassion, understanding — and, ultimately — better care. But what if you don’t speak the same language? Or if your patient struggles to speak at all? Here are five ways to overcome language barriers with your patients.

Ways to Manage Language Barriers When Working With Patients

language barriers

Figure out what language they speak.

The first step in bridging communication differences is to find out what language or languages your patient speaks. Christy Copensky is a progressive care nurse in South Florida who works with many patients who don’t speak English. Plus, many of her patients have had strokes or suffer from other neurological issues, which can increase their vulnerability even more.

“For me, sometimes it’s a matter of trying to figure out first if they can speak. Then what language they speak, and going from there,” says Copensky.

Use translation apps

language barriers

Once you’ve identified which language your patient feels comfortable with, a simple way to start a conversation is to use a translation app. In addition to Google Translate, apps like SayHi and Language Translator can provide real-time translation to assist with conversations.

“I rely on Google Translate first to at least introduce myself and do the very basics of who I am and what I’m here to do,” says Copensky. Despite occasional translation errors, Copensky finds the smartphone app helpful. “It’s always been a benefit rather than a hindrance for me.”

Learn useful words and phrases related to patient care

Depending on where you’re located, there may be several commonly spoken languages in your area. Learning some key phrases in those languages goes a long way toward putting your patients at ease and making them more comfortable.

Words and instructions that you often use, such as “eat,” “drink,” “sit down,” “turn over,” “pain,” and “where,” can be helpful. “If you walk into a patient’s room and they’re crying, and you don’t communicate with the same language, you can ask, ‘Are you in pain?’ and they can point or say, ‘Yes,’” Copensky says.

Call in a medical interpreter.

While a translation app can be helpful for introductions and small talk, it shouldn’t be relied on when discussions about medical care are required. For these types of situations, it’s important — and legally required — to obtain the services of a medical interpreter. “Anything regarding their diagnosis, orders, surgery, their medicine prescription, any paperwork requiring consent, it all has to be documented,” Copensky explains.

She goes on to explain that all these communications legally need to go through an interpreter approved by the hospital or clinic. “Even if your fellow nurse speaks Spanish, for example, and you call her/him in to explain, that technically is not the right way to relay information that needs documentation,” she says.

Use body language to communicate.

If you can’t verbally communicate with a patient, either due to a language difference or a neurological condition, acting out various requests and using gestures can be extremely helpful. “If you want them to take the medication and drink, sometimes you’ll show them,” Copensky says.

On the flip side, patients can also show you what they need through their actions. “When it comes to a foreign language, they point a lot to things, so maybe they’re thirsty, and they’ll point to a cup and then point to their mouth, for example,” says Copensky.

This also holds true for nonverbal body language. “Your visual facial expressions are important — like smiling and not raising your voice. If you’re giving positive nonverbal cues, then it definitely makes them feel as if you’re at least a friend.” She adds, “Sometimes we think that because a person speaks a different language, that they don’t hear well, which is not the case.”

language barriers

Use multiple methods of communication.

As a travel nurse, you may end up working in regions where there are large populations of people who don’t speak English or who speak it as a second language. There are many ways to communicate with patients who speak other languages, from translation apps to gestures to medical interpreters. Using a variety of methods can help you make patients more comfortable during a vulnerable time in their lives.

We hope you found this article on managing language barriers when working with patients helpful. Are there other ways you manage language barriers when you are working as a travel nurse? Comment them below.

Are you interested in taking care of patients in other regions of the country? Call RNnetwork for more information at 800.866.0407 or view today’s job openings.

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