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Doctoring in a Foreign Language

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in Healthcare

Most hospitals offer language interpreters to help doctors communicate with patients. But research shows many doctors don’t use them, an issue explored in the latest Doctor and Patient column by Dr. Pauline Chen. Dr. Chen writes:

Dr. Alicia Fernandez and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Yale University examined language barriers between patients and doctors at two teaching hospitals with excellent interpreter services. The investigators interviewed 20 residents, young doctors recently graduated from medical school who make up the clinical frontline at these two urban medical centers.

A complex picture emerged from the interviews. While the doctors acknowledged that they were underutilizing professional interpreters, many made the decision not to call an interpreter consciously, weighing the perceived value of patient information against their own time constraints. Moreover, despite their personal misgivings, the doctors often felt that this kind of shortcut was acceptable and well within the norms of their professional environment.

I called Dr. Alicia Fernandez, the senior author on the paper, to discuss her findings. I also found myself confessing that like the study doctors, I had more than once just “gotten by.” “People have discussed the findings,” Dr. Fernandez said, “and they’ve
recognized themselves. I recognized myself. If I’m rounding late at night, I might just decide not to use an interpreter. It has become an acceptable shortcut in care. But the truth is that the patient deserves to speak to the doctor as well.”

The New York Times

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