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Healthcare Career Tips: Learn a Second Language

A significant portion of the U.S. population does not speak English as their first language. In fact, according to the 2013 American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau), 20.8% respondents (aged 5 and older) identified they spoke a language other than English at home; and 8.5% respondents indicated they spoke English “less than ‘very well’”.

A language barrier can have a huge impact on vital facets of one’s life, from education to healthcare.

As a healthcare professional, being able to speak a second language not only improves care for patients who communicate primarily in that language—it can also improve your career opportunities.

Limited English Proficient (LEP) Individuals

LEP.gov defines Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals as those “who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English…”

There are approximately 25.3 million LEP individuals who live in the United States as of 2011, according to a July 2013 Migration Policy Institute article by Monica Whatley and Jeanne Batalova. This represents approximately 9% of the American population.

“The total number of LEP individuals has grown by 81 percent since 1990, and has established a relatively large presence in California, Texas, and New York.”

Furthermore, these LEP proportions have been increasing. “The total number of LEP individuals has grown by 81 percent since 1990, and has established a relatively large presence in California, Texas, and New York,” reported Whatley and Batalova for the Migration Policy Institute (July 2013.)

The Migration Policy Institute article adds that as of 2011, while about half of the country’s LEP population are living in New York, Texas and California, large segments also live in New Jersey, Illinois and Florida:

State LEP Population (2011)
California 6.8 million
Texas 3.4 million
Florida 2.1 million
Illinois 1.2 million
New Jersey 1.1 million

Source: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/limited-english-proficient-population-united-states

The above six states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey) account for 67% of the 2011 LEP population in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute; but there is still a significant potential of interacting with those with limited English proficiency anywhere in the country.

“While many LEP individuals are still attracted to the historic immigrant-destination states of California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois, significant numbers are opting to settle in nontraditional destinations in the Southeastern, Southwestern, and Northwestern United States,” stated the Migration Policy Institute in another one of its reports (“Limited English Proficient Individuals in the United States: Number, Share, Growth and Linguistic Diversity”December 2011.)

Top 10 Languages Spoken by U.S. Born LEP Individuals (2011)

• Spanish
• German
• French
• Chinese
• Vietnamese
• Italian
• Hindi & related
• Yiddish/Jewish
• Navajo
• Arabic

Top 10 Languages Spoken by U.S. Born LEP Individuals (2011)

• Spanish
• Chinese
• Vietnamese
• Hindi & related
• Korean
• Fillipino/Tagalog
• French
• Russian
• Arabic
• Portugese

Source: Table 3 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/limited-english-proficient-population-united-states#18

Why Learn a Second Language?

Effective communication is essential in healthcare. “Lack of English proficiency is a barrier not just to effective communication with individual health care providers, but also to accessing care in the first place,” states the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in a 2010 report.

The AHRQ added, “The number of people nationwide needing language assistance is growing rapidly…and individuals with these needs interact with the health care system daily,” noting statistics like “Eighty percent of hospitals provide services to LEP patients regularly, and 63 percent of hospitals encounter these patients daily or weekly [2006].”

Translation/interpretation services provided to LEP individuals in healthcare settings may be formal or informal. They can range from official interpreter services (i.e. someone whose profession is as an interpreter) to a bilingual family member or a staff member acting as translator.

The ideal scenario—although not necessarily feasible as metropolitan hospitals can encounter dozens of different languages—is for a healthcare professional, knowledgeable with the patient’s condition, to be able to communicate in the language in which that patient understands.

A growing body of literature finds that language concordance between patients and providers (i.e., both speak the patient’s primary language well) results in greater patient understanding, leading to increased satisfaction…better medication adherence…greater understanding of diagnoses and treatment…greater well-being and better functioning for persons with chronic disease…and more health education…” stated the AHRQ.

Thus, if you are currently pursuing a or working in a healthcare career, becoming fluent in a second language will undoubtedly help you stand out from the competition.

Learning a foreign language

Learning a foreign language can help further your healthcare career.

Patient Care

But it’s more than just being a prime candidate for job offers. A healthcare provider may not be able to help patients as effectively if there is a language barrier. Carolina Amoruso, in a Winter 2011 Diversity Employers Magazine article, shared this instance: “The Wall Street Journal Online, for example, cites an incident where a doctor, unable to properly communicate with a patient, mistook
his shortness of breath for an anxiety attack when, in fact, the patient was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication of diabetes that could have caused a coma.

Additionally, speaking in a patient’s primary language can help them relax and understand the medical procedures being performed on them. “When trying to comfort patient anxiety during the treatment process, it is very helpful for someone, especially professional medical staff, to speak the same language as the patient,” said Ken Zwerdling in a web article for Foreign Staffing, Inc. “The results are obvious: patients will be more apt to return to the healthcare provider where comfort and communication were highest and thus establishing a long relationship.”

Tips for Learning a Second Language

Wherever you live, learning a second language will be a great asset to your healthcare career.

The Migration Policy Institute cited that in 2011, 65% of LEP individuals in the U.S. spoke Spanish, so you might want to become proficient in that language first. But it also depends on the demographics of where you are working. For example, if you will be working in a healthcare facility near San Francisco’s Chinatown, you would probably benefit from learning some basic Chinese.

Consider geographic concentrations of languages and also possible language gaps at a given healthcare facility. For example:

If you are applying to sonography schools in Houston, Texas for instance, check out whether you can take foreign language courses as electives in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic or Urdu (the top five languages spoken in Houston’s metropolitan area, according to the Migration Policy Institute, 2010).

If you are already finished with school, and living in the Los Angeles, CA area for example, check out if any schools are offering continuing educational courses in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Tagalog.

In New York City (where almost half the residents do not speak English in their homes, according to NYC.gov) you might want to take courses in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian or another language spoken in the area.

Additional Tips

Research local and online universities/organizations to find out about second language or foreign language courses—some are offered specifically for healthcare professionals.

You might also consider completing a language immersion program in another country. For example, the Baja California Language College offers a Medical Spanish Program in Ensenada, Mexico. Or the National Registration Center for Study Abroad advertises numerous medical language programs in countries such as Bolivia, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica.

There are also a countless number of language resources online. One example specifically related to healthcare is the Medical Chinese Online Teaching Module created by the New York University School of Medicine.

Learning a second language can be amazingly fun, particularly if you choose to immerse yourself in opportunities so you practice speaking and experience another culture, from attending the Spanish and Flamenco Festival in Tucson, Arizona to the Taste of Polonia in Chicago, Illinois.

Reach out to a cultural club offered in your community or at a local school to see if you can be teamed up with a language partner; they could help you with their native language and you could potentially help them with English. Who knows, a long time friendship could form.

Learning another language will not only help you professionally. It will also allow you to immerse in some new and exciting experiences and most importantly provide quality care to a more diverse array of patients.

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