Language Barriers: Travel Nurse Edition

Language barriers are a problem in any industry because they prevent effective communication. With nursing, and travel nursing more specifically, language barriers, and the methods to overcome them, can substantially impact the quality of care you can provide.

A Barrier to More than Just Language

When you think about a language barrier, you usually think about a spoken communication block, but it is more than that. It also includes the culture behind that language. Differences in culture can prevent quality care just as much as differences in language. Countries across the world have differences in their customs and methods in how they practice medicine, so when patients are exposed to a completely different situation, they may object or simply be confused.

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The Impact On Care

While language barriers impact everyone in the healthcare industry, the degree of stress is higher for nurses than for physicians. There is also a difference in how you perceive the language barrier impacting the quality of care provided. Why is this the case? As you know, nurses have a more communication driven relationship with their patients.

Language barriers tremendously impact how nurses can provide care to patients, and as a travel nurse placed into a location where different languages and cultures exist, the experience can be tough. With each new assignment comes a new set of languages and cultures associated with your placement.

When communication is an essential element in how you are able to provide care, the moment that is taken away, challenges arise. A lot of what you do is to make sure your patient understands their diagnosis or treatment. With a barrier of communication in place, you already know that they don’t, or barely, know what you are saying, so the challenge is to determine what you can do to help them understand. Making motions? Writing everything down? Even when you can find a method that helps convey what you are trying to say, there are still gaps that can severely impact the quality of care provided.


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The barrier appears in more instances than just letting the patient know what is going on, but also when you try to provide care. For an example, say you are distributing medications to an elderly lady originally from China with a glass of cold water. She refuses to take the medications. Why does she refuse? She must take the medication or more complications could arise! In many Asian countries, it’s a cultural belief that drinking hot water is healthier then drinking cold water. This is a situation where the differences in language and culture can significantly influence the quality of care you are able to provide.

Many problems can arise if patients don’t follow instructions, refuse necessary treatment, or comply with what you are saying when they don’t understand.

Options to Overcome the Barrier

There are two main options that can help nurses overcome language barriers in medical situations.

Translators: The first option to help overcome a barrier of communication is by using a translator. There are some great reasons for hospitals to hire translators, but shortcomings are still possible.

They are a resource that is relatively easy to come by, but finding one that has experience in a medical environment in the hard part. A translator must be able to translate more than just the words the patients are saying, but also the feeling and meaning behind them. They may not know what medical terms or what they mean in one or both of the languages, so in an instance like this, there is still a language barrier. There is a chance for a lot to get lost in translation – either way.

Additionally, patients and you as well, may find it awkward to talk through someone else. It might be uncomfortable, especially if the topic is personal, and the patient might have a difficult time opening up about everything to someone they don’t trust.

Bilingual and bicultural nurses: When you speak the same language, and have experience or knowledge of the patient’s culture, the language and cultural barrier can be obliterated!


language barrier 1Bilingual and bicultural nurses are a very important part of hospitals and other medical facilities because they are the link between a culture and a language that a patient knows and one that they do not. The connection can create a level of comfort and clarity for both the patients and nurses.

Patients are more willing to open up to someone that understands where they are coming from. Additionally, accurate data and information can be gathered and a higher quality experience can be provided when the language barrier is brought down.

The need for bilingual nurses across the country is huge, so if you are a bilingual nurse, travel nursing could be a very rewarding and lucrative career. Areas where medical tourism is abundant have an immense demand for bilingual nurses, and those that can travel for times of influx can be a huge advantage.

Author: Travel Nurse Source

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