In the United States, people go to the doctor's office. Often.
For all kinds of reasons. According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC),
between 2009 and 2010, there were 1.2 billion visits to physician
offices, hospital outpatient, and emergency departments.
People living in the United States come from all over the world,
and they come from all kinds of cultural, linguistic, and political
backgrounds. Although English is the prevalent language, health
care providers treat patients who speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog,
French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Hindi,
Persian, Gujarati, Cambodian, and many other languages.
Most importantly, people who come from different countries also
bring with them their experience with different health care
systems. And while participating in the system of this country,
they may lack essential pieces of information when it comes to
procedures and their health status.
Given that people in the United States seem to require a lot of
care, and in light of the country's constantly changing
demographics and culture, being a health literacy hero is
crucial. Communicating in plain
language is hard when two people come from the same background
and both speak the same language. So imagine how hard it is when
two people don't share a cultural reference and cannot speak the
same language! And all of this comes into play at a doctor's office
Here are some tips for health literacy heroes-both health
care providers and patients-to keep in mind:
Ask Questions, the Right Way
Asking questions is not a common occurrence across cultures of
the world. Sometimes, questioning is perceived as a push back or
disrespect, especially when it comes to physician-patient
relationship. But don't shy away!
Questions save lives.
Ask one question at a time. Avoid posing double questions such
as, "Do you want to carry on or should we stop here?" In a cross
cultural situation, the listener may only comprehend one
Check and Double Check
The easiest way to minimize the challenges of intercultural
communication at a doctor's office is to check and double check.
Assumptions cannot drive decision making! Whether agreeing to
something or providing instructions, a moment spent double checking
that the physician and patient understand the communication can
have a huge impact on health care outcomes.
Write Things Down
Sometimes people who do not speak English as
their mother tongue will read more proficiently than they speak. It
is a good idea to always write things down as a backup.
In any communication encounter, listening is key, and that is
particularly true for intercultural exchanges. Listening is much
more than hearing. Listening well involves filtering out
distractions, focusing your attention on what another person is
saying, making sure you really understand the message, interpreting
the message, and responding appropriately. Indeed, listening well
is a lot of work, but it is essential to effective intercultural
So, as the doctor's office visits continue to increase and
communicating with people from many different backgrounds becomes
even more of a necessity, let's focus on the importance of being a
health literacy hero. Change can be hard, but with patience, we can
communicate effectively in this quickly changing health care
This is part 5 of the Healthyist's series on Health
Literacy. For more on our thoughts on health literacy, read part 1,
Be Health Literacy Heroes, This Month and Always, part 2,
Are We Thinking Clearly About Health Literacy?, part 3,
Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus: Differences in
Conversational Styles Between the Sexes and What it Means for
Health Communications, and part 4,
The Heart of Health Literacy: Motivating People to