Why you need a medical translator

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2013

If you've ever felt that your doctor was talking to you in a foreign language you are half right. We physicians absorb thousands of terms derived from Latin and Greek into our vocabulary during years of training and we sometimes forget that our patients only know English. Even when we discuss a disease, a procedure or a prescription in simpler terms there are other factors that block a patient's understanding. The more serious the problem, the more helpful it is to have another person to help process the information.

Anyone faced with a serious illness becomes distracted by fear, worry and anxiety so that the doctor's words hardly register. Listening to medical jargon only makes it worse. The patient may nod in agreement but understand only part of what is being said. When breaking bad news a physician appreciates having a spouse, adult child or friend accompany the patient. It's helpful if that person has some medical knowledge and to be able to ask the right questions. Often it simply helps to have someone for support.

A patient should never hesitate to ask for a clear explanation of an issue or for the reason for a particular test or medication. Even in these days of hurried doctor visits physicians realize that a well-informed patient is more likely to comply with treatment and to take responsibility for his or her own care. In many practice settings a nurse or medical assistant may review the findings, explain laboratory tests or other medical procedures, review each prescription and prepare the patient for follow-up care. Even these can be confusing and having a translator whose mind is not clouded by anxiety can prevent serious problems.

Ask for information in writing, especially for prescriptions.

All these issues are especially important for hospitalized patients. A strange environment, anxiety, sedatives, painkilling drugs and semi-nakedness conspire to cloud rational thought. Liberal visiting hours make it possible to have a friend or relative at hand most of the time. Something as simple as placing the nurses' call button within reach can become a matter of alleviating discomfort or preventing a fall.

Finally, nurses and other hospital staff are simply too busy much of the time. Adjusting the bed, rearranging a pillow, adding a blanket or assisting with a trip to the bathroom are things that matter, not just for comfort but for safety.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.