At the heart of patient-centered cancer care is communication and understanding, and oncology nurses have a responsibility to ensure that their patients have all the information they need to successfully navigate their cancer journey. But what happens when language barriers inhibit the flow of information between patient and practitioner? 

Accurate Translations Are Critical

Medical treatments and terminology already feel like they’re in a different language. Ensuring that patients understand their diagnosis, treatment protocol, side effects, and potential outcomes is essential to the decision-making process and successful outcomes. As part of ongoing patient assessment, nurses must identify whether their patients understand English, how much they understand, and what they haven’t grasped about the conversation. Moreover, if a patient doesn’t speak any English, nurses must recognize which options are available—and which to avoid—when looking to translate medical information. 

Often, family members or other caregivers will volunteer to translate conversations. Although it can be useful, it can also present problems when discussing complex medical information and taboo subjects. If translating family members have a low level of healthcare literacy or are unfamiliar with medical terms, they could provide incorrect details to the patient. Another possibility is that well-meaning family members knowingly withhold health-related information they think will be troubling to the patient. 

Using websites and programs like Google Translate could help with minor elements of communicating, but it can be ineffective at translating rarer terms like medical information despite the number of advancements through the years. If the gap between languages is vast—like between English and Arabic, Mandarin, or Japanese—miscommunications can be further complicated because of the sheer difference of the language, its elements, and colloquialisms

How to Cross the Conversational Divide

Because oncology nurses will see a wide range of people from many different backgrounds, most institutions have translated important written materials into common second languages. In some cases, colleagues or support staff may be fluent in a second language and can help provide verbal translation.

When a patient speaks a less-common language—one that doesn’t have any translated materials—it can be an opportunity for nurses to advocate for those patients at an institutional level. Speaking with management and administration about hiring a certified medical translator—whether onsite or online—to decipher already-written English print materials could be an easy first step. Considering that printouts and brochures would need to be transcribed only once and copied for future use, hiring a fluent professional with a medical background could prove to be valuable not only to that patient and family, but to future patients as well. 

For in-person conversations, medical translators can call into a patient’s room to provide their services in real time. Smartphone applications have been designed specifically to help providers translate medical information to patients. Nurses can explore available services and identify the options that might work best for their patients and institutions. 

Furthermore, government agencies do have translations available for their medical materials, but they aren’t completely comprehensive. The National Cancer Institute’s Patient-Reported Outcomes Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events is currently available in 18 languages, and the agency continues to add more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has translated materials for as many as 16 languages available for patients and providers. 

Despite language barriers, oncology nurses can still work to build relationships with their patients speaking a different language. By understanding the resources available—as well as when to advocate for needed materials—oncology nurses can help close the gap and provide patients with the best case possible.