Immigrants and the Language of Health Care

As I walked in the office for this visit, I was immediately handed a questionnaire with terms to which I did not know the meaning. Other questions on there were things I was told by mother never to discuss with strangers. As I sat there, I kept on thinking about how hard it must be for other immigrant groups to sit and go through doctors visits when they lack the language and the knowledge of Western medicine, especially when I was having such a hard time going through this visit myself.


Medical discourse is by no means a simple matter of linguistic conversation; this is true to both monolinguals of English and non-English speakers. With the immigrant population in the U.S. growing, the demand to provide culturally appropriate, relevant, and sensitive care is at its highest. This has been addressed by healthcare facilities by providing interpreters with the goal to lessen the language barrier between patient and healthcare provider. However, often enough, this does not lessen the barrier, as other components of communication such as cultural competency are ignored.

When it comes to healthcare literacy, it is important to note that even English speakers require interpretation of medical discourse, as it is not part of the average citizen’s vernacular. This means that healthcare providers play the interpreter role with anyone who is not part the healthcare system. The only way that anyone can understand any discourse is by having prior experience in that field of knowledge. The fact that medical terminology is very specific to its discourse hinders the ability of people to fully understand the world of medicine.

This has been previously identified as a problem among U.S. population, and to a still greater extent with immigrant groups. Among groups that speak English as a second language or speak no English at all, the healthcare literacy tends to be lower. The Joint commission has identified low health literacy, cultural barriers, and limited English proficiency as the “triple threat” to effective health communication. Immigrant groups tend to suffer from this communication gap more often than not.

As our immigrant population continues to grow and the United States moves toward an evolving healthcare system, it is important and essential to address issues, such as those presented by the triple threat. We must be ever-conscious that our population is diverse and as such, we need to cater to the needs of an ethnically and culturally diverse population by providing the means of proper and sensitive communication that lessen the barriers to adequate health care.