How Language and Culture Barriers Can Hinder the Healthcare Process

How Language and Culture Barriers Can Hinder the Healthcare Process

July 27, 2017

July 27, 2017 - A large part of emergency preparedness is how responders and citizens are able to communicate and correspond with each other. Clear and constructive communication methods allow thousands of people to be well prepared and equipped for the next major disaster. Without these communication methods in place, information would not be able to shared and distrusted to the public.

So what does this mean for the percentage of the population whose predominant language isn’t English? For many people living in America, a language barrier could prevent them from receiving vital information or care. During a medical situation, a patient’s care could be compromised if the patient and healthcare provider are not able to communicate. In most situations, a doctor needs consent and as much patient history as is available to them in order to prescribe treatment or perform a procedure. Without a translator, there is a higher risk of patients receiving improper treatment. In addition to the barriers created by language differences, the various cultures and backgrounds of patients can often interfere with or inhibit efficient medical practices. Cultural boundaries can often be a major source of varying views and opinions as every culture holds different values and ethics. In patient care, cultural factors can alter the distribution and approval of common clinical practices.

Healthcare delivery is already complex during routine care and procedures. These complexities are only amplified in disaster situations. During disaster, risks are higher and more dangerous. Thousands of patients are in need of medical care and treatment at the same time and doctors must be fast and efficient when handling these situations. Trained interpreters are more costly than using untrained staff or family members, but the quality of interpretation may suffer when untrained interpreters are used, placing the patient at risk for medical mishaps due to misunderstandings and the clinician at risk for medical malpractice suits.

In addition to language, cultural barriers may also hinder medical relief efforts during disasters.  For instance many Southeast Asians who experience severe health problem don’t often seek medical attention in the American healthcare system. Cultural beliefs about the sources of illness and correspondingly appropriate forms of treatment can be a barrier to Westernized health care. A provider’s lack of knowledge about a patient’s cultural background can also interfere with the traditional medical treatments. There may be unknown side effects of traditional folk medicines used beforehand. For foreign patients, a lack of familiarity with American culture can make healthcare services seem unfamiliar, unavailable, or inaccessible. Recently in Minnesota an outbreak of the measles occurred in a Somali community. This outbreak emerged among Somali-American children attending the same child care facilities and occurred due to the decline of the measles vaccination rate in Somali-American children. Many Somali parents living in the community were skeptical of the measles vaccine and chose to opt out of getting it for their children. This skepticism has resulted in 79 cases of the measles in Minnesota this year, which is 9 more cases than the entire nation saw in 2016. While measles can cause permanent brain damage, blindness, or deafness, many Somali-Americans living in this community still believe that the vaccine that prevents measles cause more harm than good. The mistrust of western medicine and methods is not uncommon among many minority and foreign populations in America.

Certain incidences in human clinical trials have created even more mistrust and skepticism of the American healthcare system. Today marks 45 years since the nation first learned about the horrors of the Tuskegee experiments- a government experiment conducted on unsuspecting African American men who had syphilis. During these trials, medical researchers and providers withheld treatment for syphilis from 400 black men in Tuskegee, Alabama in order to study the effects of the disease if it went untreated. To this day, the Tuskegee trials have been held up as one reason for the continued distrust between the black community and health providers and medical researchers.  African American participants typically express greater concern about experiencing harm from participation in clinical trials and distrust toward medical researchers than white participants.

 These cultural barriers between minority populations and the medical community can prevent many individuals from receiving quality care and treatment. Provider–patient communication involves socialization and education. The easiest way to create trust between the two is by creating transparency among all communities and having resources available to help break barriers and better understand the concerns and skepticism of various populations. Cross cultural accommodations in patient care involves patients and providers considering plans and practices that incorporate all cultural systems with western medicine. Learning more about the cultural history of others allows healthcare providers to gain a better understanding of the fears and doubts of other cultures. Without acknowledging and accommodating various languages and cultures into healthcare practices the healthcare process is greatly compromised.

Lailah Fofana

Lailah Fofana is an intern at Healthcare Ready and a recent graduate of Howard University where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with a concentration in Management Communications and Economics. She previously worked as an intern at Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States in the Community Benefits department where she coordinated public health projects and plans while tracking the projected outcomes of each.

At Healthcare Ready  she is responsible for attending relevant meetings and briefings, developing meeting summaries for HcR leadership, identifying and tracking relevant working groups, and more. With her background in research and communications, Lailah is able to conduct qualitative and quantitative research while assisting with social media communications and blog management. Lailah plans on attending graduate school to earn her Masters in Public Health in the near future.