Translation Please?

Well this is something that has bothered me throughout med school. But today it was at such a frustrating level that I just have to talk about it on here.

Today an elderly couple had presented to hospital to be admitted. The wife was to have a major abdominal surgery the following day (Whipple’s procedure). They were a Chinese couple who had been living in New Zealand for many years now. Unfortunately, neither of them knew any English.

It took One hour for the house officer (who luckily spoke Mandarin) to explain the details of the woman’s procedure, translating for the surgeons. Another hour to get her to consent for a research project she had the opportunity to be a part of, and another full hour to admit her medically to the ward with the anaesthetics team.


Two words. Language Barrier.

The woman was so flustered by the end of the multiple consults that she requested to back out of the research project because she was uncomfortable and nervous that she didn’t understand a lot of the jargon even though it was translated.

She was quite anxious about her procedure and couldn’t follow many of the details described to her during the consent for the actual procedure itself.

By the end of it, both the patient and the doctors left with quite a yucky feeling. Neither completely satisfied that they had achieved full comprehension.

Medicine is so difficult. I can appreciate that fully as a medical student. But oh my goodness it must be even harder for general people to understand things.

And then throw in a communication obstacle in. What are we supposed to do here??

Immigrants are great. Moving to a new country is an awesome idea. But I wish people would do so with the intention of learning the language of that country. Fair enough if English isn’t taught or spoken in your country. Just like Spanish or French isn’t spoken in mine. But if I were moving to France, there is no way in heck I would do so without attempting to learn the language.

But in medicine, I’ve come across many patients who require interpreters. And from those experiences, I can tell you that they do not make the process any better at all. There’s always gaps. There’s always compromises being made and questions going unanswered. You just don’t get the full picture.

Fair enough if you are new to the country and you don’t know the language. But I take issue with the people who have lived in this country for decades, working, owning retail businesses, etc. etc, and yet saying they don’t speak any English.

I don’t understand it. Do they only ever talk to their own people? Do they stay at home forever? How does it work?

But I do know that when it comes that they become unwell unfortunately, they get sub-optimal care purely because the doctors can’t understand them or vice versa.

It’s just not fair. The doctors would also feel quite frustrated and helpless, not being able to provide the best care for patients like this. But there’s just no way around the barrier.

I just think that people need to take responsibility and ensure they are safe and can communicate in situations like this. Like it’s not just with doctors. In an emergency situation, how would such a person call for help? There are no interpreters in an emergency. They could be in danger.

And don’t get me started on interpreters. It’s just way too hard to be on the same page with them as well.

Gah. Just frustrating.

A language barrier is just dangerous. I just think people need to realise that. 

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