Language Barriers in Travel Nursing, How to Overcome Them

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July 9, 2023



How to Overcome Language Barriers as a Travel Nurse

Onestaff Medical provided this article.

Traveling across the country means travel nurses will be treating a number of diverse patients. This can quickly create language barriers for travel nurses and patients who aren’t fluent in a certain language.

To ensure each patient is receiving the healthcare and support they need and are entitled to, it’s important for travel nurses to not only be mindful of diversity and inclusion but to also take certain communication strategies into consideration.

language barriers

Why Is It Important to Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare?

Failing to overcome language barriers with patients can be the difference between receiving proper versus insufficient healthcare for your patients. Learning how to communicate with patients who speak a different language, especially those who don’t speak English, is critical in ensuring equal opportunity for proper care.

Currently, about one in five Americans speak a language at home other than English. This means that the likelihood of communicating with non-English speaking patients is incredibly high for travel nurses.

Considering the mass amount of Americans who speak another language, as well as the importance of providing equal care to all patients, it’s very important for travel nurses to learn how to overcome any language barriers that may arise in their healthcare facility.

7 Tips for Communicating With Non-English Speaking Patients as a Travel Nurse

It can be challenging to overcome language barriers in a healthcare setting, especially for travel nurses who may not know a language outside of English. Fortunately, OneStaff Medical has a few tips to consider as you interact with non-English speaking patients.

1. Consider All Cultural Differences and Be Culturally Sensitive

People come from many different backgrounds and all walks of life. Everyone has an origin story for who they are, where their family is, and what traditions they have. Being culturally sensitive to every patient and their unique situation is the first step in overcoming any language barrier that may be present.

Beyond having a baseline understanding of a patient’s perspective, there are other things that must be considered when communicating with them. For example, it’s important to be mindful of certain cultural sensitivities. Travel nurses may need to err on the side of caution when approaching certain topics related to healthcare, including death, gender, sexuality, and more.

Additionally, the English language contains a myriad of euphemisms, jokes, and other sayings that don’t necessarily translate well into other languages. Using these types of phrases may create an awkward situation where the patient may not understand what you are saying and may even find it offensive.

To be more culturally sensitive, travel nurses may want to consider learning a few polite expressions in common languages they encounter day-to-day. It can also help to familiarize yourself with the cultural norms of these languages. While you aren’t expected to know everything, having some understanding of other cultures and languages is better than having none.

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2. Speak Slowly But Not Loudly

For some, it may be inherent to speak loudly when someone else doesn’t understand the language or what you are trying to communicate to them. However, speaking loudly can be ineffective and may even come off as rude to some patients.

Instead of focusing on your voice’s volume, focus on speaking clearly and slowly. Patients who use English as a second language may not be proficient enough to understand the fast, conversational elements of the English language.

Therefore, be mindful that non-English speaking patients may need more time to comprehend certain words or sentences. Talking deliberately with a slow, clear tone is one of the best ways to overcome language barriers with a patient.

3. Use Body Language Appropriately

Like certain English euphemisms, elements of body language may come off the wrong way if travel nurses aren’t aware of cultural differences or how they may look to non-English speakers. For this reason, you’ll want to pay close attention to your body language.

Actions usually do speak louder than words, and your patients may find more understanding of what you’re communicating based on your body language than they would from the words you’re speaking. Always be aware of what you may be conveying with your body language, especially when it comes to facial expressions. The right expressions can be vital clues for patients and help them to better understand you.

It’s important to be aware of how your arms are positioned, how you are standing, the way you move your hands when speaking, and more. For example, standing with your hands on your hips or with your arms crossed can nonverbally communicate a more closed-off and unwelcome persona. On the other hand, using your body and facial expressions to convey a warm environment can make patients a lot more comfortable.

4. Use an Interpreter

Sometimes, travel nurses may encounter situations where the patient doesn’t speak any English at all. This can be incredibly challenging and make it difficult for the patient to express their concerns to you and for you to communicate back any information or treatment plans.

Miscommunication with a patient can put travel nurses in risky situations, as they likely won’t have all the information at their disposal to know the correct course of action for the medical situation. In these instances, using an interpreter can help make nursing communication with non-English speaking patients a lot easier.

However, it’s also important to note that interpreters may not always be at your disposal when you need them. This can be especially true in dire situations where there isn’t enough time to call a translator, such as in an emergency.

For that reason, travel nurses should not rely solely on the idea that an interpreter will always be there; instead, focus on continuing to be culturally competent in the case that an interpreter is not available.

5. Make Eye Contact

language barriers

Making direct eye contact with a non-English speaking patient is not only respectful but is also important in ensuring your patient understands what you are communicating to them. Even if an interpreter is present in the room, it’s important to always talk to the patient directly and maintain eye contact rather than looking at the interpreter.

Conversely, retain eye contact when the interpreter is translating from the patient to you, as well. Whether the care situation is minor or severe, all patients want to feel heard and understood. Maintaining eye contact is a great way to show that you care and are there to listen to their concerns.

6. Build Trust and Be Respectful

To provide the right care, your patients must be able to trust you and your expertise. Putting patients at ease by showing kindness and respect is one of the best ways to ensure proper healthcare is provided.

Above all else, it’s important to be respectful. When communication becomes a challenge, it may be easy to become frustrated or impatient. However, it’s imperative that travel nurses not let this happen.

Instead, practice patience with all non-English speaking patients. You are likely to have a more successful outcome with the patient, as well as build the trust you need to be successful. Show respect by giving them the space and time they need to understand.

7. Learn a Few Key Phrases

Learning a new language may seem daunting, but even knowing a few key phrases can make a huge difference when treating and communicating with non-English speakers. Put your patients at ease by coming into the conversation with common phrases in their language.

Even simple phrases and words such as “eat”, “drink”, “where”, “pain”, “sit down”, and more can make a huge difference and leave a lasting impression on those you’re caring for and treating.

Overcoming language barriers as a travel nurse can be a challenge, especially when considering how unpredictable a patient’s situation may be. However, using the right body language, practicing respect, and even knowing a few words in common languages you’ve encountered can help in overcoming any language barrier that may be present.

Are you looking to start your career as a travel nurse? Contact OneStaff Medical today to learn more!

Our job board is a great place to search for your next travel nurse assignment. We have you covered with our housing page if housing is an issue. You can search for what you are looking for.

If you are a new travel nurse or looking into becoming a travel nurse:

Travel Nurse Guide: Step-by-Step (now offered in a PDF Downloadable version!)

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