Communication Barriers in Healthcare

A Spanish mother who spoke no English, had brought her son to a hospital for medical help. She was speaking to a physician who did not understand Spanish. There was no one available who could translate what she said. The son, however spoke a bit of English and turned into a interpreter for his mother. Luckily, the doctor managed to diagnose the child’s condition correctly and treat him accordingly. Communication barriers in healthcare are currently one of the most pressing issues plaguing hospitals and healthcare setups across the United States.

In Medical Care

This was just the tip of the iceberg related to the communication problems in healthcare. There are not only barriers to effective communication when it comes to doctor-patient relationship, but there are communication problems in nursing as well. There are variety of dialects related to each of the languages spoken. There are many different languages spoken by patients visiting hospitals, like Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, etc. These different languages highlight the importance of communication in a hospital setup.

Language barriers create problems for the physician to understand the problem of the patient. This means the doctor can misinterpret the patient and diagnose him incorrectly. The doctor needs to rely on interpreters or ad hoc interpreters like friends, family, untrained support staff, or even strangers in the waiting room. But these ad hoc or proxy interpreters are not as reliable as professional interpreters. This is because most of the time, they lack the knowledge of medical terminology. Also, if the person misinterprets or explains the symptoms incorrectly, it will lead to misdiagnosis and wrong treatment.

There was a case, where a Spanish boy fell unconscious at his girlfriend’s home before saying the word, ‘intoxicado’. The emergency staff at the scene thought that ‘intoxicado’ meant ‘intoxicated’. The actual meaning was feeling ‘nauseated’. The patient was given a wrong treatment for drug overdose and after about 36 hours the comatose patient was treated with the correct line of treatment. This wrong interpretation cost the hospital $71 million(!) for the medical malpractice lawsuit settlement. There are many such medical malpractice cases due to communication barriers.

Other problems with language barriers in health care settings involve the proxy interpreters who do not understand the need for confidentiality when it comes to discussion of medical problems. A patient also may feel uncomfortable discussing their medical problems in front of their family and friends, or a third person. This may be due to issues related to family honor, domestic violence, drug abuse, psychiatric problems, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. One may not be able to handle sensitive issues mentioned by the patient and may speak about it within the patients social network. Effective communication skills are those where even a proxy interpreter is able to communicate as fluently as a professional interpreter.

Other issues in hospitals include child patients. Children cannot explain what happened to them clearly, and may try to hide or lie to save themselves from a possible punishment from the parent. A child suffering from domestic abuse at the hands of the guardian or parent may be too scared to say what happened. Thus, this may lead to a biased diagnosis and sometimes an innocent parent may be contacted by the Department of Social Services (DSS) to take over their custody of the child.

In Nursing
There are many healthcare workers in America who come from all over the world trying to earn a living, or learn medicine with the best healthcare setups in the country. These members may not be fluent in English, and may have problems communicating with patients. Many nursing staff are from other countries with poor English skills. These nurses may not be able to understand the patient clearly or help the patient in an appropriate way. This leads to a sharp drop in patient satisfaction, and loss of clients by the hospital.

These nursing staff may misinterpret the doctor’s orders and give the patient wrong medication. The nursing staff may give the patient a solution to drink, meant to be put in the ears, or worse, misinterpret the parents of a child with fracture and have them accused for child abuse. A doctor with poor language skills may not be able to explain clearly to the patient about their condition or treatment method. This will cause confusion and panic in the minds of an already stressed out patient.

The only solution for communication barriers in healthcare setups is the appointment of professional interpreters. One needs to focus and train nurses in communication techniques. This will help bring down the number of misdiagnosis and misinterpretations. If the hospital cannot afford an interpreter, they can try and tie up with hospitals who have them. In case of any emergency, these hospitals may send over their interpreters to help them out. This was all about types of communication problems in healthcare setups. Thus, in the end, the biggest cause of communication barrier is language. Hope this article has helped you understand reasons behind this palpable issue faced by hospitals currently.