More Than Words: Working Through Language Barriers in Healthcare

May 24, 2023 08:36PM

Maria Canales was her family's English-to-Spanish translator growing up. 

She began going with her parents to medical appointments when she was nine. Her family had recently moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico and her parents struggled to learn English. In addition, Canales was "the baby" of the family, so she was always with one of her parents. 

From filling out forms to explaining her parents’ ailments to the doctors, Canales said translating for people became an ingrained daily task. Simple things like acronyms were a challenge for her parents, she added.

“Tons of times they gave me this prescription [and said] 'can you read what it says on the bottle?' Something as simple as that,” Canales said.

Although Latinos are the second largest ethnic group in the U.S, only 7% of doctors identify as Latino nationwide, according to Pew Research Center. In addition, the American Board of Family Medicine estimates that 22% of family physicians were fluent in Spanish nationwide from 2013 to 2019.

The lack of bilingual providers causes language barriers across all medical fields and leads to poorer health outcomes.

“The person goes home [after an appointment], they’ve gotten a prescription, they have no clue how to take it,” Canales said. “They’ve gotten no directions, but whatever’s on the paper, and the pharmacy is not going to print it in Spanish.”