Understanding the Importance of Language

Communicating effectively with patients who speak different languages is essential in healthcare.

The United States is now the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico, according to a study published by the Instituto Cervantes. The study says there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States, plus an additional 11.6 million who are bilingual.1

Being bilingual offers significant advantages for eye care professionals. This goes beyond optometrists– it includes anyone who encounters a patient, like opticians, technicians, and administrative staff

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Communication Barriers

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More than half of Hispanic adults have encountered a communication barrier in the health care system, and they turn to a variety of formal and informal sources for help in overcoming these obstacles, according to a study conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.2

The study found that half of these Hispanic adults aged 18 and older rely on family or another health care provider to help resolve language or cultural difficulties in the health care system, while more than a quarter have relied on a translator, public resources in their community, or online sources for assistance.2

Recent Pew Research Center analysis shows just under half (46%) of survey respondents say they have a close friend or family member who needs a Spanish-speaking health care provider or translator.3

Why bilingual?

While patients' language proficiency is important to health care quality ratings, what may matter more is when patient and provider speak the same language. 4

It is important for non-Latinos to improve their Spanish language communication skills, especially if practicing in areas where most of the patient population speaks Spanish and/or has limited English proficiency.

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Benefits to be derived from being bilingual include:

  • Building Trust- When patients can communicate with their healthcare providers in their preferred language, it fosters a sense of comfort and trust. Effective communication reduces misunderstandings, enhances patient satisfaction, and increases adherence to treatment plans. Patients are more likely to feel valued and understood when they express their concerns and receive clear explanations in their native language.1 
  • Enhanced Quality of Care - Bilingual healthcare professionals are better equipped to gather accurate medical histories, understand symptoms, and give patients diagnoses and treatment options. This leads to more accurate assessments, appropriate interventions, reduced medical errors, resulting in better patient health outcomes.1
  • Expanded Patient Base – Practices that employ bilingual staff can tap into a broader patient base. By offering services in multiple languages, healthcare providers can attract patients who may have otherwise sought care elsewhere due to language barriers.1
  • Effective Cross-Cultural Communication - Being bilingual allows healthcare professionals to engage in effective cross-cultural communication. Bilingual staff can better understand the cultural factors that might impact a patient's perception of illness, treatment, and recovery. This sensitivity leads to more personalized care that respects patients' cultural backgrounds.1 
  • Job Opportunities - In addition to helping to improve communication and patient care within your current role, adding another language to your resume can also expand the scope of opportunities for your career.5 Bilingual healthcare professionals have access to a wider range of in-demand jobs than candidates who are fluent only in English.5

Resources

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A few medical schools are finding ways to incorporate medical Spanish proficiency into training the next generation of physicians. In 2018, Indiana University School of Medicine created a Care of Hispanic/Latino Patients Scholarly Concentration (the equivalent of a minor in undergraduate school) at its West Lafayette campus.

The National Association of Medical Spanish  is an interdisciplinary group working to create a standardized, evidence-based approach to teaching medical Spanish and assessing bilingual medical providers.

The New England College of Optometry’s LaVista Club teaches members how to perform an eye exam in Spanish.  LEO members can visit our Member Resources section for materials provided to Latinos en Optometry to help doctors and students improve communication with Spanish-speaking patients who do not speak English.

The American Optometric Association offers a guide on “Communicating with Spanish Speaking Patients.”  It includes Spanish Examination Phrases for a Case History and common phrases related to Eye Examinations.

References