5 Tips for Travel Nurses Communicating With Patients Who Don’t Speak English

You never know what kind of patients you will encounter in travel nursing. Because most of us are so used to other travel nurses and medical professionals, we sometimes find it hard to simplify our way of speaking enough to be understood by patients and families—especially those who are learning English as a second language. Roughly one-in-five Americans (a little more than 60 million) speak another language at home, which means travel nurses are bound to meet patients who they find it difficult to communicate with due to language discrepancies. 

Depending on the facility, there will be times when patient safety requires making an interpreter available to communicate effectively with non-English speakers. Still, putting patients at ease cannot be left solely to interpreters—compassionate care is one of the main reasons people join the healthcare industry, after all. So what can travel nurses do when patients don’t speak their native language? Well, here are five tips that will help with better communication.

Speak Slowly, Not Loudly

It can be tempting to raise your voice when talking with someone who does not speak your language. It’s easy to do this without even realizing it, but we must remember that most language learners are not deaf; they’re just not yet proficient. In most cases, they may understand more than they can speak, but it can take them a little bit longer to comprehend your words.

When communicating with patients, staff members, or contacts within your travel nursing agency, no matter what language they speak, it is good practice to talk slowly and deliberately without being condescending. 

Be Mindful Of Body Language

Body language is another tool that travel nurses can use to communicate beyond words. Try to be aware of how you’re standing or where you position your hands. Leaning toward the patient can imply you’re engaged and interested in what they have to say. However, folded arms or hands on hips can come off as hostile behavior.

Your facial expressions are also nonverbal cues that affect a patient’s feelings toward you. Pay close attention to the body language and facial expressions your patients use as well. It can give you vital clues about whether the patient understands you.

Keep It Simple

Stick to shorter sentences whenever possible. Use words that are easier to understand and translate, especially if you’re using an interpreter. The complex sentences and technical jargon that travel nurses use can decrease the accuracy of their translation, and they could summarize your words in a way that doesn’t fully express what you mean—plain language helps everyone in these situations.

Use Gestures

When in doubt, just mime it out! 

Acting out the requests you want from patients during a travel nurse assignment might be necessary. Even with or without the shorter phrases, the visual element may help them better understand what you’re trying to tell them or want them to do. This approach can be helpful not only when navigating different languages but if a traveler encounters a stroke patient with limited speaking ability.

Consider The Cultural Differences

Signal cultural sensitivity in your interactions with patients and others. Cultural differences can affect the way you communicate, so err on the side of caution. Topics such as death, sexuality, and women’s health must be addressed with care and respect, even with a medical interpreter present. Also, be careful about making jokes that might not translate well into your patient’s native language. Culturally competent care increases the quality of services and improves outcomes.

Communicating effectively with patients allows travel nurses to do their jobs better. Having a fluent speaker on hand who is either a trained interpreter, a staff member, or an adult family member is ideal but not always possible. However, you can play an active role in helping to make your non-English speaking patients more comfortable by following these five tips. Try them out the next time you pick a travel nurse contract!

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