The benefits of a bilingual practice

January 22, 2016
Get tips on communicating with patients—in any language.

U.S. Census data has found that about 9% of the population rate themselves as not speaking English well. Doctors of optometry who are bilingual, or have partners or staff members who are, have a great advantage in serving these patients.

"Having bilingual staff is valuable if a particular language is common in your community," says Lillian Kalaczinski, O.D., chair of AOA's Health Center Committee. Dr. Kalaczinski worked at Cherry Street Health Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 10 years before becoming an assistant professor at Michigan College of Optometry in July 2015.

Dr. Kalaczinski says at least half of the patients at Cherry Health are best served in a language other than English, with the most common languages being Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic. "Certainly, having bilingual providers is an asset in a health clinic," she says.

The Glendale, California, practice of Movses D'Janbatian, O.D., is located among a sizeable Armenian population. Dr. D'Janbatian estimates that he speaks Armenian with about 20% of his patient population. In addition, he has staff members who speak Arabic, Farsi and Spanish, though he says he also can manage an exam in Spanish.

Dr. Kalaczinski and Dr. D'Janbatian offer the following tips for doctors of optometry who are looking to increase their ability to communicate with non-native English speakers.

  1. Hire for your community's needs. If there is a common non-English language in your community, consider hiring a doctor or staff member who speaks that language. "Just be aware that if your staff is going to act as a medical interpreter, they should have appropriate training to act in this role," Dr. Kalaczinski says.

  2. Use translation services. Dr. Kalaczinski notes that new online services offer translation via video apps such as Skype or Facetime. "This would work very well for languages that are not commonly encountered in your practice," she says. Larger health centers and practices might have access to a medical interpreting service. "However, it can take one to two weeks lead time to have the interpreter available for an appointment, and there can be a higher cost associated with these services," Dr. Kalaczinski says.

  3. Consider letting family members or friends serve as interpreters. Family members who serve as translators are often the de facto solution, because someone who doesn't speak English well is likely to bring along someone who can translate for them. Dr. D'Janbatian often prefers this option. "I think having the patient bring a family member or friend is the best way, rather than having staff or some official translator," he says. "The trust factor is better."

Resources to assist in communicating with Spanish-speaking patients are available to AOA members. Visit AOA Marketplace, and click on 'study materials.'

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