Good Translation = Better Health

It is sometimes hard to figure out how to get the health care we need. It can be even harder if we do not speak English well, or understand the American culture. Do not give up! When you are sick or injured, you need help. Ask to see a doctor, nurse or other trained health care provider. Even better: Visit a doctor before you get sick. Then, when you need help, you can call someone who already knows you.

Rachel Spector, R.N., Ph.D., an expert in cross-cultural health care, suggests some ways to help put you at ease and make your doctor visits positive. 

  • Choose a doctor who speaks your language if you do not speak or understand English. When you make your appointment, ask if the doctor or someone in the office speaks your language. If not, it is okay to ask the staff to find a trained health care translator.
  • Avoid using your family or friends to translate. Family or friends, and especially children, are not trained to translate medical words. They might miss something important that the doctor says. They also may not tell the doctor everything you asked them to say. Family and friends are wonderful for emotional support, but it is much better to use a trained translator.
  • Rehearse what you want to say to the doctor. If a doctor is new to you, practice what you want to say to the doctor before you go. Practice with someone who has been to a doctor before.
  • Write your questions and the doctor's answers. That way you will remember the details of your talk.
  • Don't be upset if the doctor only speaks to or looks at the translator. Many American-trained doctors usually do not talk with anyone but the patient. If the patient does not speak English, then the doctor will talk to the translator.
  • Try to understand how most American doctors work. In the United States, doctors tend to be businesslike and blunt. Being direct doesn't mean the doctor doesn't care. It's just a different way of working. Keep in mind, too, that many doctors will only focus on your health and the part of your body that has problems. They don't tend to spend much time talking about your family. If you have family problems that keep you from following the doctor's treatment, tell the doctor, so you can work out other solutions.
  • Bring all your medicines in their original packaging to your appointment. This includes all prescription drugs, traditional or herbal remedies, and over-the-counter medicines. This helps your doctor know exactly what medicines you take and how much. Bringing your medicines also lowers the chance your doctor will prescribe a drug that will mix badly with the medicines you already take.
  • Tell the doctor if you have also been consulting with a non-medical healer, such as an herbiera, curandera, or bruja. Some of their treatments may conflict with your doctor's treatments and drugs and cause you harm. Your doctor only wants to know so he or she can care for you the right way. The information is private and not shared.
  • Ask your doctor or health-care provider to repeat or explain anything you do not understand.  It is your right to ask questions if you need more answers. Doctors are busy, but they will explain things to you if you ask. They want to be sure that you know what your treatment is, and that you follow it so you will get better.
  • Tell your doctor if you think you will have problems following the doctor's treatment. Maybe your family always eats certain foods that are not part of the doctor's diet suggestions. Maybe you work during the day and do not have time to get the test your doctor wants you to have. You may have transportation problems, or the prescription costs too much. Tell your doctor about your hardships. The two of you can find other ways to get the care you need. Don't be afraid or embarrassed. 

You deserve good medical care and service. The suggestions above can help you to get the most out of every doctor visit. 


Rachel Spector, R.N., Ph.D. author of Cultural Diversity in Health and Illness, 6th Edition, Prentice Hall, 2003 in phone conversation with writer. 

Norine Dresser, author of Multicultural Manners, 2nd edition, Wiley, 2005 

This information is for education only. It is not medical advice. Please ask your doctor for advice about changes that may affect your health. 

Reviewed by:

Richard L. Lane MD., Managing Medical Director, KY

Lynette Cooper RN CMCN  Legal Specialist Sr