A critical part of practicing medicine is communicating well with patients and their family members. Good communication skills help physicians understand their patients' questions and concerns, and help patients understand their health and medical conditions. In today's multicultural world, being bilingual in medicine can help mitigate the challenges that patients and their families may face if they don't speak English.
Michelle Aguilar, MD, is a Los Angeles pediatrician and medical Spanish course instructor who knows the benefits of being bilingual in medicine firsthand. Her own background was one of the driving forces behind her decision to become a doctor. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles, in a primarily Spanish-speaking household," she explains. "Growing up, I was a child interpreter for my parents."
Discussing sensitive issues
Physicians build rapport with their patients, which can be helpful when they need to have discussions about serious and sensitive issues, such as treatment options and end-of-life care. And while most major healthcare facilities, particularly in larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, have access to interpreters, there are times when bringing in an interpreter may not be ideal.
When a physician brings in an interpreter, she is inviting a third person into the discussion. "This person, who is unknown to the family, comes in and is not the person they've been in contact with," Dr. Aguilar says. "It's basically having an added stranger involved in the care, versus the physician or team that has been involved."
Learning another language
If you're not yet in medical school and you have a basic understanding of another language, Dr. Aguilar suggests that you take some time to become more familiar with it. "Knowing any other language is so useful, especially if you are the only one speaking it and can communicate with a patient," she says.
Lessons are worthwhile, but if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a language or culture, that is even better. "If you're contemplating a gap year, take that time to focus on a foreign language," Dr. Aguilar advises.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to learn a second language as a child, and once you enter medical school, it can be challenging to find the time for language courses. But it's not impossible. If you want to take advantage of the benefits of being bilingual in medicine, Dr. Aguilar suggests that you take online classes and listen to recordings to build on language classes you may have taken in high school.
Even if you do know a second language, unless you are completely fluent, interpreters are still valuable team members. When dealing with difficult discussions, you don't want to depend on broken translations. "It's critical to know your limits and to know what you're comfortable with," Dr. Aguilar explains. "There are the cultural nuances in the colloquial language that people use. Patients won't be speaking in medical terminology, but in their everyday language. As a provider, you may be able to speak the medical language, but understanding your patient might still be a challenge."
The universal language of caring
Dr. Aguilar emphasizes that regardless of the languages spoken by physicians, their patients and their families, the most important thing is caring. She remembers a time when, going off shift, she explained to a Spanish-speaking mother that she was leaving, but that one of the oncoming residents also spoke Spanish. The mother said, "It's not about communicating in Spanish. It matters that the providers care, that they take the time."
By Marijke Vroomen Durning