The Importance of Being Multi-Lingual in a Healthcare Team

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Although it is not always a necessary criterion for getting a job in healthcare, being bilingual or, even better, multilingual, is a huge plus to the health care provider, the patients and you as the individual who can bring your linguistic expertise to the job.

Of course, the advantages of having a bi or multilingual health care worker such as a nurse, orderly, doctor or surgeon in a health care team do depend a lot on the cohort of patients that are likely to use that service. In many countries, multilingualism is taken for granted and multilingual healthcare workers are an absolute necessity. To give a few simple examples, Switzerland has three or even four official languages and Swiss health care workers and professionals expect to deal with patients whose first language is French, German, Italian or Romansch. In Wales, it wouldn’t be unusual in many healthcare facilities to have a bilingual healthcare team. In the United States, many parts of that huge country are effectively bilingual in population and although English is the only official language, bilingualism is almost a necessity for many health care workers.

Multilingualism provides better healthcare to the patients

Better patient outcomes are the obvious main benefit of having a multilingual member or members of a healthcare team. Patients need to be able to explain their symptoms as fully as possible so that their healthcare problem can be properly diagnosed. Even if the patient is partially fluent in the main language of the healthcare provider, not being able to articulate exactly what they are experiencing can lead to a wrong diagnosis, delayed treatment or even the wrong treatment.

Health care professionals also need to be able to ask the patient questions about their condition, fill in the gaps if any of their medical history, and discover anything such as allergies or family history that could affect their treatment. If surgery is needed, the patient must be able to understand what is involved and give informed consent for the anticipated procedures. Nurses and doctors who are monitoring the patient’s treatment or recovery need to explain medication and interpret how the patient is feeling.

All of this communication may depend on the availability of a bilingual or multilingual health care worker. Being able to communicate fluently in the patient’s own native language understandably means there is less chance of errors in giving and taking instructions and less chance of miscommunication and misinterpretation.

Multilingualism is a positive addition to a medical CV

Patients aren’t the only beneficiaries of bi or multilingualism in a healthcare setting. The healthcare worker or professional is bound to benefit from their additional skills. As has already been mentioned, in some countries or locations in a particular country, bilingualism may be a compulsory requirement because of the nature of the linguistic makeup of the patient cohort or the official multilingual nature of the country. However, even in countries which are officially monolingual, there are advantages of fluency in more than one language for the healthcare worker. Job prospects are better having a useful second or third language on the CV. Promotion and career prospects are improved too. It’s hard to say exactly just how advantageous a bi or multilingual ability is to a healthcare worker or professional as thus depends entirely on the location, but it certainly can’t be anything other than a positive. The bi or multilingual healthcare worker may also find that they would be welcomed with open arms in many other situations far from home as a volunteer. Medecins sans frontieres and Red Cross/ Crescent workers, for example, are almost always picked because they can speak more than one language. Volunteering is not for the faint hearted, but as a short term experience it can be an amazing and enriching personal experience.