We get to meet people from all over the Richmond area. Volunteers, patients, and families come to us from all over the State of Virginia. We also cross paths with visitors from around the world. As we have seen time and again over the past year or so, the doctors, interns, researchers, and other staff at MCV and the institutions attached to Virginia Commonwealth University are performing some amazing research and procedures. From the latest in transplant technology to life-saving surgeries, cancer research to reconstruction, those men and women are doing things that are drawing in people in need from across the globe. The process of healing seems to cross all barriers.
Except the language barrier.
Being sick and away from home can be scary enough, but imagine if the medical professionals trying to help you are speaking a foreign tongue? A complicated procedure is going to involve exams, consultations, recovery care, medications, rehabilitation, and goodness knows what else. The language barrier is often just as “mission critical” for the physician as for the patient. There can be errors in medication dosage, frustration for patients, and the potential of misdiagnosis.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are almost 50 million people in this country alone who are not fluent in English. In a tragic Florida case, a man trying to explain his sudden dizziness to paramedics used the word “intoxicado”. The responders wrote this off as being drunk, and the man suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. A study in Pediatrics found that when there is a language barrier one in five patients had errors in translation. Often it was not even so much the translation of words, but rather the nuance of phrases, or regional colloquialisms.
At a pediatric clinic in Northern Virginia, a mother told of waiting in an emergency room for hours for a translator. Her young son was having an asthma attack. The wait for a qualified translator could sometimes be a matter of life or death. While there are laws and some insurance providers will pay for translation services, it is knowing who qualifies as a translator that is the stumbling block.
Yeimarie Lopez saw the barrier first hand when her own grandmother was being treated for cancer. In addition to the difficulty that the family matriarch faced, other members of the family who were less than fluent were having trouble with care, or didn’t understand recommendations that they, too, be screened for the disease. Lopez is working on a research project to examine Latinos and their challenges in navigating health care. She hopes to crate a foundation that will continue advocacy after her graduation.
Being in medical crisis is going to involve a great deal of communication and dialog. There is also complicated terminology, and speaking the same language may not always mean that a patient understands what the doctor is talking about. The geographic barriers of native tongue further compound it.
At least smiling is a universal language.