As a medical student or job candidate, you will enter the healthcare sector armed with a variety of tools and personal qualities gleaned over the course of your education—from cutting-edge clinical experience to carefully honed social skills—all to set you apart from the competition and best prepare you to help those in need. As you prepare to join the health workforce, remember that alongside organic chemistry and a healthy dose of empathy, a second language will be an essential component of your career toolkit.
The benefits of knowing a second (or third) language in our increasingly globalized world are incontestable. Whether you aspire to travel widely or to focus in your immediate community, you needn’t look far to encounter patients who speak another language. Nearly nine percent of all American residents—that’s more than 25 million people nationally—acknowledge speaking English “less than very well,” and more than 60 million residents regularly speak a language other than English at home.1 The current demand for bilingual health professionals is one of the highest across all sectors: registered nurses, medical assistants, medical and health services managers, licensed practical and vocational nurses, and medical secretaries, taken together, accounted for almost eight percent of all online job postings for bilingual candidates in 2015.2
Being able to provide care in a patient’s native language prioritizes patient safety, promotes a human connection, enhances money-saving efficiency, and decreases liability—all outcomes that employers in this field are seeking, along with the candidates who can deliver them!
A Call for Bilingual Care
Any healthcare professional’s last wish would be to put his or her patient in harm’s way; however, language barriers can lead to exactly that.
The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has recognized that limited English proficient (LEP) patients are at greater risk for injury during medical treatment than those with a mastery of English; furthermore, these injuries “are more frequently caused by communication problems and more likely to result in serious harm compared to English-speaking patients.”3 Beyond physical injuries, language miscommunications with LEP patients also lead to delays in treatment, patient confusion or alienation, longer hospital stays or readmittance, and sometimes lawsuits. Bilingual health workers empower both their colleagues and their patients, adding a direct line of communication where the absence of one impedes safety and quality service.
Healthcare Roles Requiring Language Skills
Healthcare professionals come to the industry to serve in a wide variety of roles, from administrators and clerical specialists to caregivers for both people and animals—including dentists, therapists, nutritionists, veterinarians, and many others. They work in a variety of environments—hospitals, rehabilitation and elderly care centers, medical offices, laboratories, schools, and private homes, to name just a handful—with patients of diverse ages, backgrounds, and native languages.
No matter which specific function you choose to pursue, you can be confident that your language skills will be an asset. Here are a few roles, among many, to consider:
Medical interpreters are key members of any LEP patient’s care team who fulfill a significant role extending far beyond word-for-word interpretation; by working in close partnership with other team members—doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and social workers, just to name a few—they can coordinate intersecting roles to keep everyone on the same page throughout a procedure or medical stay.4 Interpreters also act as two-way cultural brokers, guiding patients and providers to be sensitive and responsive to cultural assumptions, teachings, or hesitations traditionally associated with different kinds of care.
Did you know? Interpreters are now enjoying greater flexibility in their work environments: studies have shown that professional medical interpreters who work by video conference can be as helpful to clinicians as those who are present on site—both situations being preferable to an untrained, or ad-hoc, interpreter, such as a patient’s family member.5
Front Desk and Admissions Staff
In addition to being the “face” of a medical office who set the tone for patients and vendors alike, front-line staff are responsible for many important pre-care exchanges with patients. They are often first to determine whether a new patient requires language assistance—a task complicated by the fact that while many patients speak enough English to “get by” answering basic biographical questions, they may not understand the complexities of later diagnoses or treatment regimens. Reception and admissions staff also obtain a patient’s consent for treatment. The ability to lead these exchanges in a patient’s native language creates a reassuring environment, ensures accuracy, and prevents future danger or legal issues.
In 2015, almost 40 percent of health insurance company Humana’s online job postings for registered nurses listed bilingual skills as criteria for eligibility, and registered nurses account for the fourth largest group of bilingual vacancies advertised online across all jobs in the United States that year.6 Bilingual nurses create a powerful person-to-person bond while prioritizing patient safety during critical moments in care. Take for example a patient’s discharge from a medical center: LEP patients regularly risk suffering from delays in treatment, readmittance to a facility, or physical harm because they have not fully understood the instructions to follow after a medical procedure, like how to take medications properly to avoid negative side effects. Nurses who are able to explain these protocols to patients and their families reduce the likelihood of preventable incidents.
Have you heard? Those seeking change and adventure may also consider working on a contractual basis with a staffing agency to fill short-term vacancies at domestic and international health facilities as a travel nurse. At home or abroad, travel nurses bring compassion, expertise, and language skills along for the journey.
Seeking medical attention always involves a certain degree of vulnerability; however, LEP patients who are not able to communicate sufficiently with their English-speaking doctors may avoid treatment altogether. Fear and apprehension can disrupt important preventative care—such as yearly screenings or maintenance of known conditions—and create dangerous, if not fatal, situations. Even when LEP patients do regularly consult a physician, language barriers can continue to block them from taking full advantage of the care they receive: for example, research has shown that diabetic LEP patients who speak a different language than their physician have significantly worse glycemic levels than LEP patients who share a common language with their doctor.7
A radiologist is special type of doctor who interprets medical images obtained using techniques such as x-rays, nuclear medicine, sound waves, or magnetism to diagnose and treat injuries. Like other types of medical doctors, radiologists employ language skills when communicating directly with patients, as well as when discussing their diagnoses with colleagues in the field. Teleradiology—the use of new technology to digitally transmit medical images like x-rays or MRIs over distances—is quickly widening the scope of a radiologist’s circle of colleagues, allowing experts to reach across states and even across international borders to discuss their immediate findings. When tested, international teleradiology has proved not only possible but successful, opening radiologists to a whole world of resources to better serve their patients.8
Pharmacists generally dispense prescription and nonprescription medicines to the public at retail drug stores, hospitals, or long-term care facilities. They may also specialize in measuring the chemicals used for chemotherapy cancer treatments or radioactive digital imaging. In a retail or care-facility setting, they use strong communication skills to provide general health advice and detailed instructions for taking specific medications to a highly diverse (and often elderly) patient population. The wellbeing of these patients relies greatly on their ability to understand such conversations with the pharmacist before proceeding to care for themselves and their families at home. In addition to the spoken languages, an understanding of Latin can also be very helpful to future pharmacists when memorizing medical abbreviations and complex terms.
How Do I Get Started?
You may be wondering which language will be most helpful to you as a future healthcare professional. The truth is that many factors play a role in how frequently you’ll encounter certain languages.
Not surprisingly, we know that Spanish is the second most popular language spoken across the United States, representing nearly 13 percent of U.S. residents.9 As of 2010, the top-spoken U.S. languages following Spanish (in descending order) were Chinese, French, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.10 This is not to say that other languages are less useful. Your career in health care may take you to unexpected destinations, or your current destination’s population may surprise you: for example, are you aware that there are about 11,000 Vietnamese speakers in Oklahoma City, OK; 5,600 Arabic speakers in Raleigh, NC; and 2,500 Tagalog speakers in Santa Rosa, CA?11
Consider this! The state of California is home to fewer than 800 certified medical interpreters across all languages who serve an LEP population of almost seven million people statewide—this includes only one certified Hmong translator for more than 35,000 resident speakers.12 Is there a shortage of qualified professionals who speak a certain language in your state?
Any language you choose to learn will open your eyes to new cultures and experiences, make you a more valuable candidate to future employers, and possibly lead to opportunities for increased pay or benefits. Best of all, it will help you make meaningful and lasting connections with future patients and colleagues—and maybe save lives doing so.
So why not add learning a language to your transcript today? Here are some ways to begin:
Many universities now offer study abroad programs specifically geared toward pre-med majors with busy schedules—just be sure to check with your advisor about which of your prerequisites must be taken in the States.
- Child Family Health International
- Linguistic Horizons: Nutrition and Natural Medicine in Peru
- Middlebury College has compiled a list of Health and Pre-Med Programs Abroad from various providers
- Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters
- DiversityNursing.com – Blog
- International Medical Interpreters Association
- National Association for Community Health Centers
- National Association of Hispanic Nurses
- National Board for Certification for Medical Interpreters
- National Hispanic Medical Association