How Can Doctors Overcome Language/Communication Barriers with Their Patients According to Dr. J. Fred Stoner

Dr. J. Fred Stoner
Jun 20 · 3 min read

As travel becomes easier, there is more immigration and emigration than ever before, and one place that this is easily seen is in a healthcare setting. Historically, there may have been small suburbs or areas of larger cities (such as China Town, Little Italy, Little Portugal, etc.) in which a predominant culture would live, and healthcare clinics and hospitals would work to cater towards them to provide the best care possible. With the movement of so many people all over the world, hospitals and physicians that are in predominantly English-speaking areas may have difficulty helping their patients if they are not able to effectively communicate with them. However, language and communication barriers are not something new, and have been an area of focus for many years, with many hospitals and physicians finding ways of overcoming them.

Interpreter Services

Dr. J Fred Stoner states that in many large hospitals and clinics around the country, interpreter services are available to the staff and patients, be it through a live interpreter or through a hospital negotiated company that provides the service. These interpreters help translate from the primary language of the hospital/clinic to the language of the patient, acting as a middleman. Many times, these interpreters are retired medical professionals that have a strong grasp of multiple languages and can easily and accurately translate the conversation back and forth. Dr. J Fred Stoner however does explain that there are disadvantages as the interpreter does not always have a medical background and may not be able to convey the main point across or may miss explaining pertinent aspects of a patient’s history.

Use language and wording patients understand

When the primary language is not a barrier, communication is key to help patients understand the focus of the visit, findings, and take-home messages. It is important to assess the patients understanding of medical language and if needed, to help further explain in words that may be clearer and easier to understand. Not every patient is from a medical or science background and it is important to keep this in mind. Sometimes explaining something in 2 or 3 different ways is best to help get the point across, and many patients see and appreciate the effort their healthcare providers put into helping them understand.


As medical information can be hard to digest, it becomes important to assess the patients understanding. Many times, this is done through having a patient repeat back to the doctor what they have heard and what they have understood. This is especially important in cases of consent during surgery and other procedures, where the patient should have a full understanding of what is going on, and what is going to be happening to them. Repletion is important when relaying information on medications and when patients should be taking them. Many times, patients may rely on just looking at the medication bottle for information, but this can sometimes be incorrect due to human error, so it is important to have patients understand which medication they are to take, the dosage, how many, and how many times daily. A simple way is to ask them to repeat back to the doctor what they are supposed to do, and this helps them remember, as well as sort out any misunderstandings.

Using Visuals

Dr. J Fred Stoner realizes that it is common to see multiple anatomical figures and models in a doctor’s office, but all patients may not fully understand their importance. Many times, doctors will use these to help explain a diagnosis, a disease process, or treatment areas to a patient to communicate and educate in a visual manner. Some studies say that almost 90% of learning something comes from visual cues, and this becomes an important focus for doctors. Many times, doctors will also have “dummy” models of treatment options for things such as inhalers, which they use to demonstrate proper use and care, and doing so helps patients see first-hand how they are to be used, usually helping to increase compliance and proper usage.

More on Dr. J. Fred Stoner here.

Dr. J. Fred Stoner

Written by

Dr. J. Fred Stoner is an experienced pathologist and clinician specializing in pain management, at The Pain Centre based in New Castle, PA.

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