Communication with Non-English Speaking Patients?

One of the main problems facing health workers is that of patient compliance. An important factor in compliance is patient education, and there is no doubt this can be improved by better communication. Since language is the most important method of communication.

Since the Hispanic population here is ever increasing I am not surprised with the number of patients seen in a medical office practice office that do not speak English. In most offices their is not a Spanish speaking staff member there to assist.

I couldn’t help but wonder how their medical office staff might be handling the ethical and legal obligations of adequate patient-doctor interaction and interpersonal communication with their Hispanic patients without a bilingual staff member or interpreter aboard.

This situation is by no means new to me. More and more Spanish speaking patients are being seen by our doctors due to the large number of Hispanic families. What’s interesting is, that I once have worked for a physician who felt it was the patient’s responsibility to make sure they bring their own interpreters, such as a family member, to translate during their appointments. In many cases this was another family member, often a child. a neighbor, or friend, which caused me to question whether this was risky not only for the physician, but equally for the patient as well.

Personally, I do not agree with such an approach. In my opinion, only a trained person that is proficient in interpersonal communication, and proper knowledge of the foreign language, medical terminology, and health care related issues should be utilized to communicate and translate between physician, patient and medical office staff. Otherwise, when you allow an untrained person, such as a family member, friend, or neighbor to come in and translate during a medical interview, you accept the risk of communication errors during such ad hoc interpretation and a chance on breaching confidentiality laws.

I take proper interaction, precise communication with patients and patient confidentiality very serious. Proper communication plays a key role on properly diagnosing, treating, and caring for patient’s needs. If Spanish, or any other foreign language, is the preferred language, or only language, of a patient who is seen in a medical office, then not having a bilingual staff member, or a trained translator available puts everybody at risk, and possibly the patient into harms way.

Granted, ultimately it is the physician’s responsibility to properly communicate with the patients, but we as the medical assistants, are also affected by with this unique dilemma of not being able to meet our responsibilities toward the patients unless we can communicate with them properly, and maintain confidentiality. As responsible and concerned health professionals we should keep in mind that trained translators have ethical and legal responsibilities regarding the physician’s obligations toward the patients, where as a patient’s family member, friend, or neighbor doesn’t. Therefore there should be no question in any physician’s and medical office staff member’s mind that having a bi-lingual staff member available to translate, or utilizing one of the many available professional medical translation services to communicate with non-english speaking patients is the safest policy, and simply the right thing to do!!!

Celeste Botonakis

On the Nursing Assistant Guides blog, certified medical assistant Celeste Botonakis explores the daily life of a CMA. She'll keep you up-to-date with the latest on what’s happening in the field, and provides tips for those who are interested in becoming a medical or nursing assistant. Celeste has served in the medical field for over six years, and is passionate about helping people. She currently works at CSR Primary Care in Skokie, Illinois. Click here to learn more about Celeste Botonakis and