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Bilingual Jobs: How Nurses Use Language To Improve Care

Nurses are a source of comfort and aid for the sick and injured, but they have to be able to communicate. We spoke with a nurse to learn how she uses her foreign language skills on the job.

Being in a hospital is not many people’s idea of a good time. Being in a hospital when you don’t speak the local language is universally a bad time. In situations like this, having a nurse on staff who’s able to communicate with you can be a tremendous relief.

Nurses, in general, are in high demand — at least in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 15 percent between 2016 and 2026. In comparison, the total job growth for all occupations is expected to be only 7 percent during the same period. Nurses are certainly invaluable to the health and well-being of society, but it’s difficult to provide quality care if you can’t communicate with your patients. That’s why nurses who speak other languages are in even higher demand.

We spoke with Gina Boisse, a registered nurse at a hospital in Massachusetts, to learn more about how she uses foreign language in her daily duties.

Here’s How It Works

Being bilingual or multilingual when you’re a nurse is less rigorous than being a medical interpreter. Nurses have different levels of language proficiency, ranging from English-only to fluency in one or more languages. Boisse describes herself as “pretty proficient” in Spanish and near-fluent in French.

Boisse makes an important distinction when it comes to how she uses her language skills. She says she uses foreign language “in communicating basic information with my patients and their families, or helping them get their immediate needs met.” However, she is not allowed to use it when discussing the patient’s medical situation, test results, prognosis and in other formal conversations.

“Only people who have had professional interpreter training for medical purposes should act as an interpreter in those situations,” Boisse says.

Boisse prepares thoroughly for situations in which she can use language to help her patients. She says she often puts together a “communication document” for patients who don’t speak English.

“If they can see and read, I will make a little cheat sheet for them with things they might tell us — ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ ‘I’m thirsty,’ ‘I’m in pain’ — along with things I might want to tell them, like, ‘Let’s check your blood sugar,’" Boisse said.

An interesting side note: family members are also not allowed to interpret formal medical discussions to patients because they may censor or editorialize information (often inadvertently). Boisse said many providers break this rule and allow relatives to interpret to save time, rather than waiting for a medical interpreter to arrive.

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

With the previously mentioned high demand for nurses comes an extremely jam-packed schedule for many of them. Boisse says the hardest part of her job is that she has too much to do and not enough time.

In addition to administrative issues caused by a lack of multilingual people, there are difficulties that lie in being one of the few nurses who can work with non-English-speaking patients. Boisse describes a time when she overheard a colleague discussing a patient Boisse knew didn’t speak English. The patient was being transported to a larger hospital for X-rays and an appointment with a surgeon, and Boisse was worried the patient would be very confused and not understand what was happening. Boisse’s colleague wasn’t focused on the language barrier, but Boisse was nervous about intervening.

“There’s not a lot of goodwill toward nurses who stick their noses into another nurse’s assignment without being asked,” Boisse explains. “We call it ‘impinging,’ and it’s considered a form of professional sabotage.”

Boisse hesitated but decided to “impinge” for the good of the patient. She offered to dig up the communication document she had created for the patient previously. Fortunately, Boisse’s fellow nurse was appreciative of her help rather than resentful. Boisse wrote up an explanation in the patient’s language to explain where she was being taken and why. She says the patient was very grateful.

And The Most Rewarding Part?

Being a nurse is hard work, with generally long shifts and plenty of difficult situations to handle, but the emotional payoff can be incredible.

For Boisse, it’s all about her patients. She says the most rewarding parts of her job are “the feel-good feelies” she gets from helping people and the positive feedback she receives from her patients and their family members.

And it’s not surprising she gets this kind of feedback, considering the concerted effort she makes to ensure all of her patients are given the highest quality of care, regardless of the language they speak.

“I am very proud of my work, and I feel special because I know not everyone can do my job,” Boisse says.

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