The Magic of Language Services in Health Care

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

As a non-native English speaker, ever since I came to Canada, I set this ground rule for myself: my future life partner has to speak English well. He doesn’t need to get a perfect 9 in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests, but he needs to be able to communicate with a doctor if I unfortunately am ever found to be in the position that I cannot.

If you’ve ever been very sick in a foreign country, you’ll understand this fear. Dealing with all the medical terms and accurately describing symptoms are not easy tasks even when you’re healthy, let alone in a situation where you’re sick, alone, suffering from the physical uneasiness that prevents you from rational thinking, and unfamiliar with a foreign health care system where you don’t even know what to do next, after taking a numbered tag and waiting in line.

Now let’s add language barriers to all this stress. Welcome to the hard mode of life.

Interestingly, medical terms in different languages and circumstances don’t always mean the same thing. “Kidney” in the Chinese language can refer to two organs, the actual kidney in modern medicine, or testicles, in traditional medicine theory. In English, “stomach ache” is a commonly abused phrase, which can be either an actual stomach ache, or a tactful way of saying “diarrhea.” “Diarrhea,” of course, can also lead to different interpretations. The same goes with “migraine,” which a lot of the time is a severe “headache.”  I have also even heard the expression of “when a baby’s still in the mother’s stomach,” where “stomach” actually refers to the uterus.

Ambiguous expressions don’t help either. What is “abdomen pain?” Does it refer to pain in the stomach or colon, period cramps (which are both slang terms that do NOT show up in many dictionaries if you search “menstrual pain”), or your appendix?

Getting sick in a foreign language environment could be such an eye-opening life experience. Imagine dealing with all of this without language assistance. I still remember the days when I didn’t know the proper name for “nose discharge.”

Apart from this technical side, there is also the mental health aspect of it.

A few weeks ago, I saw a short documentary about the health care workers in Wuhan, China. The doctors and nurses were saving COVID-19 patients one by one. In one scene, an elderly patient lying on his bed was moaning, “I wanna die.” The nurse attending to him, while preparing her equipment, pointed at his monitoring device and replied with “You can’t say that, looks good [referring to the numbers], you’ll be able to get out of here in days.”

This is not the type of conversation that is commonly translated or interpreted, because it happened spontaneously without the presence of an interpreter, in an unpredictable situation, and didn’t involve prescriptions from a doctor. However, it’s this type of communication that comforts patients, gets them to understand how far they’ve come or how far they have left in their struggles, and provides them with the emotional support that non-professionals can’t offer.

When people are sick, vulnerable and desperate, it’s very easy for them to give up due to the suffering they’ve been through. In these times, simple words such as “I’ve seen patients like you, they all survived” might make a huge difference in boosting their will to live and therefore increase the effectiveness of their treatments. These little encouragements, however, are often lost in translation.

Even within a non-life-threatening situation, humanistic care is still as equally important as medical care. Going through processes like being stripped, prepped, washed and injected can make patients feel dehumanized and health care workers numb, but all these emotions can be relieved through language and conversations. If you’re ever in doubt of the power of languages, please just take a moment, and think of that nurse who gave you a needle when you were a child, who smiled at you and told you that you’re being very brave.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of a mutual language, this type of conversation rarely happens between health care workers and non-native English speakers. This is where language services should weigh in. People who need language assistance in hospitals are, of course, a small percentage in every country, but it is the quality of life of these minority groups that really determines how friendly and helpful our society is.

One thing, I guess, that at least most of us will agree on, is that if one day we were unfortunately involved in a car accident and fall into a coma, we for sure don’t want our chances of survival to rely solely on the other driver’s English skills.