Interculturality in the Medical Field

Since societies are becoming increasingly more plural, it is complicated and even dangerous to get sick in a foreign country, especially in one with a language you cannot communicate in.

One of the clearest examples of this type of multicultural societies is, obviously, the United States, which is home to people from nearly every country in the world. I read in an article that fifty million people in the US speak a language other than English as their mother tongue. Of these fifty million, approximately half do not speak or understand English “well”.

This reality leads directly to the situation that when a person who doesn’t speak the local language goes to a hospital or clinic with a medical problem, communicating with the doctors is a complicated endeavor. Some hospitals and medical centers offer a service of social interpreters or even real-time translation software programs to make it possible for the doctor and patient to communicate, but this is not an established fact and on many occasions these translation systems are not efficient enough to ensure faithful communication, both in terms of what symptoms the patient is experiencing as well as the resulting indications from the doctor.

On certain occasions, the interactions between doctor and patient are limited to a brief exchange of isolated words and gestures or at times these patients rely on friends or family members who are fluent in the language in order to act as interpreters. This is also dangerous, since perhaps a person who isn’t highly familiar with the field doesn’t put any importance on translating “cuchara” or “cucharadita” from or into Spanish perfectly when it might be important to take into account this type of question when deciding on which treatment will be most effective.

The issue becomes even more complicated when the patient has to get a prescription from a pharmacy; it is more common to find translation services offered there. In fact, Medical Care (the official medical magazine of the American Public Health Association) published a report that showed that less than half of the 764 pharmacies interviewed in four states with significant or growing populations of Latinos (such as Texas, Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina) had full capacity to translate medical instructions. 35 percent of the pharmacies were unable to provide translation services and the rest only offered a limited service. The results showed that 44 percent of pharmacies located in counties with a large Hispanic population, which comprises one-fourth of the total population of the United States, were unable to translate medical instructions. And this is the situation with Hispanics; those of languages of even smaller minorities are quite discouraging.

Through studies such as this one, it is readily apparent that the work of translators and interpreters is fundamental in a world that is forever more globalized and where countries have more and more plurality and interculturality. In this specific environment, where a person’s health is at stake, our work is not only necessary, but comforting, since we are able to make our own contribution to society and make it possible that any person can use the medical services at the same level and in the same conditions as anyone else.

(Spanish version: