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Medicine’s real language barrier

A Turkish friend of mine told me that he had saved for several years to bring his grandmother to America for a visit. His pre-teen son had met her only twice in his life (via trips to Istanbul) but they corresponded frequently and had a very close bond. My friend said he wanted to surprise his son by having his grandma at home when he came back from school on his 14th birthday. The only hesitation, my friend said, was that his mom didn’t speak any English and he was worried that she might get lost during an airplane transfer or in the airport. He worried that she would be afraid and alone.

Being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language can be a frightening experience. When I was a teenager, I flew to Zaragoza, Spain to visit a friend of my mother’s. I felt excited at take off from the US, but as the plane approached the unfamiliar red soil of our destination, a sense of uneasiness settled in. The flight attendants started messaging in Spanish, and as we touched down I knew that I wasn’t home anymore. All I knew how to say was “hola.”

As I made my way through the airport, all the signs were in Spanish, I knew I needed to get a cab, but I wasn’t sure where to wait – and the Spaniards didn’t seem to respect queues. Once I fought my way to the front of a gaggle of natives, I realized that the cab driver needed to ask me clarifying questions about my friend’s address. I responded in English, to which he repeated his question with increased volume. I felt really stupid and quite helpless.

My experience was kind of similar to the feeling that patients have when they are thrust into a medical situation with a sudden, life threatening illness. Healthcare professionals can forget how foreign everything is to the patient, and go about their activities without explanation, or with jargon-rich “medicalese” that is virtually inscrutable to the person with the illness. When questioned, they repeat the jargon, raising their voice for emphasis and “clarity.”

Hospitals spend lots of money on translator services for foreign languages, but many healthcare professionals forget that medicine itself is a kind of unique language that requires translation. As the consumer driven healthcare movement takes wing, it will be more and more important to provide a kind of translator service for those who need to make educated decisions about their medical options. The accuracy of the translation can be a matter of life or death, and so healthcare consumers need to be very selective in where they get their information. Considering the source of your information has never been more important. Don’t let your health be lost in translation.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Medicine’s real language barrier”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a superb analogy. Thanks for sharing. I love reading your insightful blogs.

  2. ValJonesMD says:

    Thank you! Please keep coming back… I hope you’ll always find insight and inspiration here.

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