Language Barrier in U.S. Health care system

 Every day we hear in the news about the amount of immigrants coming to the United States and how they are fighting for legalization; we also hear about how they managed to cross the border illegally and how they “abuse the system”, etc.  What nobody hears or talks about is how these immigrants take care of themselves, and how they struggle with the changes in their lives. One of those changes is to learn the new language.

Most people coming to Unites States from countries where their primary language is other than English, have a hard time communicating at the beginning, and it takes time to learn just enough English to be able to communicate with others; although I have to say it is not as easy as it sounds. Learning English is difficult, and the fear of mispronouncing a word makes it even more difficult. Imagine how hard it is to go to a hospital and not knowing how to explain the symptoms that one is feeling, I can tell you it’s really hard and makes people feel stupid, well at least I did.  To explain it better imagine traveling to a foreign land for your vacations, and where no one speaks your language, how would you feel if you were lost? how would you get back to your hotel? Well being sick and not being able to communicate in a foreign land where no one speaks your language, not only causes distress for the sick person but also for the health care providers, and could potentially cause health related issues in the community.

The following is an example of how a language barrier can affect a whole community.  A woman with a medical history of Asthma came to the emergency room of the local hospital, complaining about shortness of breath and cough. The woman did not speak English so it took at least 45 minutes to get a person that could help to interpret for this woman. After the improvised interpreter “finished” the woman was send home with medicine for her asthma.  The woman continue going to emergency room almost every day for a year, and every time the doctors treated her symptoms, but never ask her questions about her past medical history or her possible exposure to any illness back in her country; unfortunately the woman died and none of the health care providers she saw knew what was the cause of death.  After a few weeks the family of the 39 year old woman came back to the hospital to report that the woman had died of Tuberculosis and that everyone that had had any interaction with her in the past year was to get tested a few times in the next two years,  just to make sure there was not consequences from the exposure to this illness.

The point is that we have one of the best, if not the best, health care systems in the world, and because of a problem that not only affects the United States but also many other countries called immigration, we tend to forget about what is more important, the health of the people living in the U.S.  Never mind  whether they are legal or not, if they have medicaid, medicare or no insurance.  Every person should be medically treated without an excuse, especially since the issue of a language barrier now days is easy to fix, thanks to the interpreter services available in person, video and phone. When the patient is able to communicate with his health care provider freely and in his own language, the chances of spreading a contagious illness is less, because it can be contained on time.

Many readers will mention the fact that if someone comes to the United States and does not speaks English, should learn to speak English, I agree. But for the sake of our society, people who do not speak English for any reason, should have the right to communicate freely with the help of a trained interpreter, so they can express their concerns and their worrisome especially in a medical facility; because is Better safe than sorry.


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