As increasing numbers of patients don’t speak English as their first language—or at all—the health care field is taking action. Here’s what’s happening and how you can become involved.
Imagine if you were in a hospital in a country where no one spoke English. Being in a strange hospital or other health care facility can be scary enough, but if you had no idea what was going on, it would make you more stressed—possibly making your health worse. You would feel incredibly vulnerable, as not knowing what was happening to you or if the workers could help you would be terrifying.
There was a time in the United States when that could happen. Although it shouldn’t happen, legally, anymore, as Allison Squires, PhD, RN, FAAN, explains, there is still a need for more bilingual nurses. “All health care facilities are required by law—including the Civil Rights Act and updated regulations in the Affordable Care Act—to provide patients who do not speak English with an interpreter,” says Squires, an associate professor at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing. “The interpreter can be an in-person interpreter or a telephone or video interpreter to meet the requirements of the law.”
According to Squires, the increase in patients who haven’t developed English skills comes from two situations: the post-WWII legacy in which U.S. citizens came here as immigrants, and the most recent wave of immigration, which has matched or surpassed the immigration numbers of the early 20th century. “According to the Pew Research Center, one in five households in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home. More communities are also becoming refugee resettlement cities across the U.S., which means increasing linguistic diversity in places that have historically only had English speakers,” says Squires. “The demand for nurses who speak another language is at an all-time high.”
Location, Location, Location
While all the sources whom we interviewed agree that Spanish is the most prevalent second language needed for patients, they also say that other languages are vital as well, depending on your region of the country. “Spanish is the priority language nationally. Other languages depend on where you live and who is migrating there,” says Squires. “For example, in the New York City and New England regions, there are now large numbers of Russian speakers. These individuals often come from former Soviet Union states where Russian was the official language. Other parts of the country, like Texas and Louisiana, have large numbers of Vietnamese speakers who came to the U.S. as refugees or immigrants. Other than Spanish, language demand is often specific to a local health care service area.”
“Spanish is the language in highest demand, particularly in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois. In California, bilingual skills are needed for Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian,” says Terry Mort, who is manager of talent acquisition for VITAS Healthcare, the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care. In the 14 states and the District of Columbia in which they provide care, VITAS Healthcare has also found the need for Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hmong, Korean, and Creole.
“We constantly have to look at demographics of the communities we serve and pay attention to how they’re changing over time,” explains Mort. “Take California as an example. At one time, South Central Los Angeles was primarily an African American community, whereas today it’s predominately Hispanic. And as our services move into outlying areas of Los Angeles County, our needs change again because we encounter more families that are Filipino, Asian American, or Hispanic American.”
Currently, in South Florida, several VITAS hospice teams are solely Spanish speaking to appropriately serve their patients’ and community’s needs. “In California, a trilingual nurse—someone who speaks English, Spanish, and other language—would be in high demand,” says Mort.
Although particular languages may be needed to serve certain populations, there are also instances in which unexpected languages may also be required. For example, when there was a recent influx of patients from Puerto Rico at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center who needed health care after Hurricane Maria, there were more Spanish-speaking patients, says Edith Lopez Dobbins, RN. Dobbins is a JET Nurse, which stands for Just Excellent Timing and means that she is a full-time nurse who serves as supplemental staff for different nursing units throughout the hospital. As a result, she has noticed an overall increase in patients who speak Hindi and Korean as their first language.
“In the hospice profession particularly, we also have the challenge of end-stage dementia patients, who may revert to their language of origin as their disease progresses. We had a Russian patient who reverted to speaking Russian, but the family indicated he had not conversed in that language for more than 20 years. If that happens, it requires us to update our care plan so that our nurses and staff members can communicate effectively with these patients in a language they understand,” explains Karen Peterson, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for VITAS Healthcare. “The more languages our staff members can speak, the easier our job is.”
Benefits to Being Bilingual
Bilingual nurses on staff help open everyone up to another world as well as another set of patients to care for, says Vivian Carta Sanchez, DNP, ARNP, from Tenet Florida Physician Services. “Nurses who are bilingual can also serve as translators to communicate very important information from physicians who do not speak the language,” says Sanchez.
Squires says that if you work in a hospital, home care, long-term care, or rehabilitation, there are four key times when interpreters are needed—admission, patient education, consent, and discharge. “Using an interpreter during these times can help reduce your patient’s risk for readmission and complications,” explains Squires.
Having a nurse who is bilingual, rather than using a family member to translate, can be crucial. “Let’s say that I take five minutes to explain something in detail to a patient, and the family member who translates what I said to the patient takes about 30 seconds. I can tell that my patient isn’t hearing the same thing that I said—and that’s a risk to the patient, because they’re not getting complete information,” says Peterson. “It’s one of the reasons we prefer not to use family members as translators because they are part of the unit of care and also dealing with psychosocial issues associated with end of life.”
Another advantage to staffing or being a bilingual nurse is that when you are speaking the same language as a patient, the work you are doing will take the same amount of time that it does as when you are talking with an English-speaking patient, says Squires. There’s no need to be concerned about waiting for an interpreter to arrive or to have to deal with any issues that can occur when using an interpreter by phone. In addition, communicating with family members may also be easier. “That being said, as a bilingual nurse, if you are the first language nurse to work with the patient when they access health services—be they in the hospital, home care, or primary care—sometimes you spend more time with them initially because the patient is so happy to have someone who speaks their own language,” states Squires. “You find out all this other stuff that the patient held back because of the language barrier or issues with interpreter services. Another advantage of being a bilingual nurse is that you can quality check video or phone interpretation.”
Speaking to patients in their native language isn’t only about the words; it’s also about their culture. Dobbins says that while they use “language phone-lines” to keep at patients’ bedsides so that they, their families, and the health care workers can communicate—which is certainly helpful—the phones can also make talking more impersonal. “It makes patients and their families uncomfortable—possibly because it’s not just about language, it’s about culture. Most of the time, we use peers in the health care team who speak the same language as the patient for better communication and overall quality of care,” says Dobbins.
“Bilingualism is even more imperative in the hospice profession because there’s a lot of emotion and psychosocial aspects of language surrounding the dying process. Each person might have a different opinion or thought process around the issues related to dying. It’s unique in that people may have difficulty conveying their thoughts and feelings, even in the same language, simply because it’s about death,” explains Peterson. “Some patients or family members can’t even say the word ‘hospice,’ so they find a way not to say it. But when our nurses, families and patients understand each other’s language and cultural nuances, we’re more confident that patients are making the right decisions and receiving the best possible care because everyone understands each other.”
Knowing about patients’ culture has become so important that the Chamberlain University College of Nursing began offering a Hispanic concentration on its Phoenix, AZ campus in May 2016. Pam Fuller, EdD, MN, RN, the Phoenix campus president, states that this concentration doesn’t aim to attract Hispanic nurses, but rather to appeal to nurses who want to care specifically for this culturally diverse group. This concentration is offered to anyone who is enrolled in the university’s pre-licensure BSN program. Because of its ability to logistically provide clinical experiences for students who are enrolled in the Hispanic concentration, the Phoenix campus volunteered to pilot it. “The local hospitals and health care centers currently serve Hispanic patients and families every day, and Chamberlain helps provide nurses and care to these local communities,” says Fuller.
“Providing nursing care requires not just an appropriate educational degree and a license, but also crosses boundaries of human dignity and respect. Many, if not all, hospitals and care centers are challenged to communicate more effectively with their patients, regardless of cultural background. Chamberlain specifically launched the Hispanic concentration based on information from hospitals in our local markets,” explains Fuller. “When a patient is in pain or in need of health care, they tend to revert to what is comfortable to them, culturally. If you are culturally more comfortable with your own language and traditions, if there is someone who can speak—at least a little bit—the language you speak, it makes the care that much more effective and personal.”
“Chamberlain’s Hispanic concentration is not a language program. This concentration exposes students to the Hispanic language and culture and allows for 25% of their clinical experience to be placed with a Hispanic patient. This gives them real-time experience in serving the Hispanic population,” says Fuller. “Any student—regardless of their personal cultural background—may enter this concentration…The goal of the Hispanic concentration is to educate students and expose them to the culture and language of the Hispanic community to provide an improved level of care to this population.”
Attracting Appropriate Personnel
How can facilities go about recruiting bilingual nurses? Squires believes that a combination of actions could help. Nursing schools need to recognize local demand for bilingual services and restructure curricula to help ensure the success of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students, says Squires. “Even now, EFL students have lower pass rates on the NCLEX-RN exam, and that’s not helping to meet our need for more bilingual nurses. Schools need to change how they teach and support EFL students so they have the same success rates as English speakers,” Squires says.
“Organizations should give bonuses to people who are bilingual to encourage better communication,” says Sanchez.
As for becoming bilingual, Squires says that to achieve the level of fluency to be able to effectively and safely communicate with patients about health issues, nurses would be required to undergo years of study or at least a six-month immersion in a country where the language that they want to learn is spoken. “Having just a few words or phrases can be helpful for recognizing when a patient is in pain or [has] toileting needs, but when it comes to the complex communication needs that go with admission for services, patient education, consent, and discharge, you really need to have what’s called sociolinguistic competence in a language. That’s something that your employer should help you certify or do it on your own to make yourself more marketable,” says Squires.
At the end of the day, being bilingual or having bilingual nurses on staff is all about patients’ safety and comfort. “As a nurse, many of my most rewarding moments have to do with going the extra mile to help a Spanish-speaking family during their hospital stay,” says Dobbins.