“The stakes are too high – I can’t practice medical Spanish with my patients.”
We often hear this sentiment expressed in our Medical Spanish classes, and while it is a responsible approach to patient care, it may not always be true.
The underlying principle at work when you feel the hesitation to use Spanish with your patients is a good one; you want the best for your patients and you don’t want to do anything that would compromise them or their condition. But have you considered that there might be a way for you to use the Spanish that you have AND make sure that your patient is getting quality care?
Common Ground will never advocate reckless use of Spanish with your patients; trying to navigate situations that are beyond your language ability is akin to treating a patient outside of your own scope of practice. So what do you do when it turns out that a patient’s needs are outside of your scope of practice? You pass them along to the professional who can help them, right? Does that mean that you never even spoke to them in the first place? Not usually. In most cases you do for the patient what you know you responsibly can, and then it’s someone else’s turn to take over. Couldn’t this be an appropriate model for your Spanish interactions with patients?
Even if all you know is “Hola, me llamo _____, soy su enfermera hoy. ¿Cómo se llama usted? ¿Qué le pasa hoy? ¿Tiene dolor?” That could be 30 seconds total, but at least you’re using what you know. The patient is put at ease because you’re making an effort, you’re building that important confianza, and as soon as you’ve reached your limit of understanding, you get the assistance you need to continue with the patient. After all, it only takes you an additional minute or two to go back through the same questions with an interpreter, and then you get to hear it all again the second time!
Any effort you make to speak Spanish will most likely make your patient’s experience with you more positive. At the same time, those brief efforts you make to speak are exactly the kind of practice you need to improve as a language learner and become comfortable enough to have a more in-depth conversation in the future.
If you have heard yourself saying that you just don’t know enough to try any Spanish with your patients, you might be giving yourself a false choice; either be fluent or don’t speak at all. Common Ground encourages you to keep trying to use Spanish as much as you have the opportunity and time to do so with your patients – but always keep in mind your own limits, and stop when you’re no longer certain that you’re being responsible with your patients.
For a few easy ways to know if you should be using Spanish on your own with patients, read our post “3 Signs your medical Spanish needs a tune-up“
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