As linguistic diversity increases in the US, the demand for nurses who speak at least two languages is also rising.
Data from the 2020 American Community survey reveals that more than 21% of US residents speak a language other than English at home. As language becomes more diverse in the US, its impact reverberates throughout health care as the bridge to effective communication between patients and healthcare providers becomes threatened.
Patients whose first language is not English have a greater likelihood of experiencing health disparities, such as unequal access to care due to language barriers. In addition, nurses who aren’t bilingual struggle to provide care and communicate with these patients with limited English proficiency. This language gap often leads to miscommunication, lower quality of care, and decreased patient satisfaction. Having bilingual nurses on staff can help reduce health disparities, enhance patient outcomes, and bridge gaps in communication.
According to Georgina Villarreal, MSN, RN, a bilingual nurse with seven years of nursing experience in medical-surgical oncology, telemetry, and travel nursing, a disconnect occurs when healthcare professionals don’t speak their patients’ native language.
“There have been a lot of occurrences where I’ve seen nurses and doctors talk to patients — not in their native language — and things get missed,” she said
Although regulatory agencies require healthcare facilities to provide language services to ensure quality care for all patients, most healthcare organizations do not have enough interpreters to go around. When interpreter services are unavailable, it puts extra strain on bilingual nurses as they may struggle to balance their own workload with requests to interpret for coworkers and other healthcare professionals.
There are just not enough bilingual nurses in the hospital,” Villarreal said. “So being the only bilingual nurse on a unit, I get pulled into every single room to translate.”
Due to the growing demand for bilingual nurses and limited staffing, it’s crucial to find alternative communication strategies with patients who are not fluent in English. Villarreal suggested colleagues employ interpreter resources when available to help patients. She also suggested using simple words or phrases in the patient’s language. In addition, strategically assigning the nurse to patients who speak their language can improve communication and workflow.