It’s An Emergency! Why American Doctors Need to Know Medical Spanish
Sometimes, going to the doctor is incredibly awkward. When a patient has to share private information with a specialist, it can get pretty uncomfortable—not to mention impossible, if the patient and the doctor can’t understand each other. Patients often already don’t know the medical terms a doctor is trying to explain to them, so it is important for these health professionals to be able to communicate effectively using conversational and medical Spanish.
As you may know, doctors from many organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in the United States, come to help ill people in Latin-American countries. If you are one of those doctors, it’s important that you prepare to use medical Spanish prior to or during your visit.
What I’ve Seen as a Medical Spanish Translator
Can you imagine how confusing it must be for someone to go to a consultation and not even speak the same language as the expert? This situation happens all the time in Latin America! In fact, I have witnessed this first-hand since my family and I have acted as translators in small towns when American doctors come to Guatemala. People from those towns usually don’t speak English and American doctors rarely speak Spanish. As a translator, I act as a bridge between them to allow them to understand each other. I’ve seen how people with different illnesses are desperate to see a doctor and to find out what is wrong with them but it proves impossible to achieve when they run into a language barrier.
The Deadly Consequences of Miscommunication
A few years ago, I met a man in his 70s named Alfonso who lived in a small village. He was looking for a doctor to cure his lower back pain. It was a serious situation as he could see a large ball-like protrusion forming on his body, but it stayed hidden inside his clothing. One day, several doctors from an American organization went to a town close to his; they were traveling through Latin America to help the ill, so he was able to go and check his back.
Before Alfonso could show it to the doctor, he tried to explain to him what he was feeling, but didn’t even know how to say espalda (back) in English. At that moment, I stepped in and began translating. Soon after, the doctor asked him to lift his shirt up. To all of our horror, when the man exposed his back, the doctor realized that he had a huge tumor that had been slowly killing him. Thankfully, the doctor immediately scheduled an emergency surgery for Alfonso.
At that moment, I realized that it’s essential to have doctors who know how to use medical Spanish. Although it may seem that the doctor could have helped Alfonso without a translator, the unfortunate truth is that Alfonso himself needed that introductory conversation to provide him with a sense of confidence toward the doctor and his professional experience.
The fact is, not being able to tell someone what their diagnosis is hinders their ability to get the treatment they need. Of course, Alfonso’s case is extreme in that it was obvious he had a tumor—but what would happen if the tumor wasn’t visible? What if he had a cluster of symptoms that he couldn’t express, but he was still slowly dying from an undiagnosed disease? The consequences could have been disastrous.
The Benefits of Doctors’ Speaking Medical Spanish
It is true that we can find volunteers to translate, however, in times of unavailability, doctors are left to their own devices. Naturally, bilingual doctors are the solution to this common problem. Here are some reasons why doctors need Spanish:
- To help patients feel safer, less anxious, and more willing to comply with treatment.
- To improve a sense of trust with the doctor, which is necessary for saving lives.
- To use their language knowledge when translators are unavailable.
- To create a good rapport with first-time patients and encourage them to return for frequent well-checks.
- Why not? Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world, and being able to speak it helps doctors not only in their professional lives but in their daily lives too.
Go Global with the Hippocratic Oath
When students graduate from medical school, they promise to “treat the ill to the best of one’s ability” by swearing to uphold the hippocratic oath. If doctors don’t take advantage of their capacity to learn another language, they refrain from having a greater reach toward the people who need them most. In other words, doctors need medical Spanish in order to have better contact with their Latin American patients, to treat them correctly, and to even save their lives.
Essential Vocabulary and Phrases for Doctors
Now that we’ve seen some reasons why doctors need medical Spanish, it’s time to practice vocabulary and phrases that a doctor would use with their patients. For example, if I, a Latin American person, go to a doctor, these are some questions and phrases that he/she would say to me in order to understand how I feel:
|¿Te sientes mareado?||Do you feel dizzy?|
|¿Te has sentido débil últimamente?||Have you been feeling weak lately?|
|¿Tienes dolor de cabeza?||Do you have a headache?|
|¿Te has sentido estresado por algo?||Have you felt stressed about something lately?|
|¿Qué síntomas has tenido en los últimos días?||What symptoms have you had lately?|
|¿Has estado comiendo o tomando algo fuera de lo usual?||Have you been eating or drinking something out of the ordinary?|
|¿Desde cuándo te sientes así?||Since when do you feel this way?|
|Voy a tomarte el pulso.||I am going to take your pulse.|
|Inhala y exhala cuando te diga, por favor.||Inhale and exhale when I tell you to do so, please.|
Then, the doctor would proceed to give his proposal:
|Te recetaré este medicamento.||I will prescribe you this medication.|
|Puedes tomar un analgésico para reducir el dolor.||You can take a painkiller to reduce pain.|
|Te enviaré tu diagnóstico en las próximas horas.||I will send you your diagnosis in the next hours.|
|Tu tratamiento durará quince días.||Your treatment will last fifteen days.|
|Necesito que regreses en siete días.||I need you to come back in seven days.|
|No puedes tomar nada de alcohol.||You can’t drink any alcohol.|
It is important to notice that these are just some of the phrases a doctor would use, but if you would like to learn more, including a patient’s point-of-view in Spanish, read our blog post on going to the doctor!
Inside and Outside the Body
Now, we’ll see some of the medical words a doctor must know in order to describe something in their patient. For example, here is a short list of parts of the body. For a more detailed list, check out our blog post Spanish Body Parts: Vocabulary and Practical Implementation.
|El oído||Inner ear|
We’ve seen some basic Spanish words that a doctor needs to master. If you’d like to look at a few more words regarding symptoms, illnesses, places, treatments, etc., check out this long list of doctor-related vocabulary!
Practice Conversation Between Doctor and Patient
Now, let’s see how a typical conversation between a doctor and a patient would go in the clinic:
Paciente: Buenos días Doctor Mooney. (Good morning Doctor Mooney).
Doctor: Buenos días Malcolm. ¿Cómo puedo ayudarle? (Good morning Malcolm, how can I help you?)
Paciente: Me he estado sintiendo mareado y débil últimamente. (I’ve been feeling dizzy and weak lately).
Doctor: ¿Ha comido algo fuera de lo usual? (Have you eaten anything out of the ordinary?)
Paciente: Sí, mariscos. Creo que comí uno que no estaba bien cocinado. (Yes, seafood. I think I ate one that wasn’t well cooked).
Doctor: Debería de dejar de comer mariscos por algunas semanas, así veremos si eso fue lo que lo enfermó. ¿Tiene algún otro síntoma? (You should stop eating shellfish for a few weeks, that way we’ll see if that is what made you sick. Do you have any other symptoms?)
Paciente: En realidad, quería decirle que me duele la cabeza. (Actually, I wanted to tell you that I have a headache right now).
Doctor: Voy a revisar su pulso. (I’m going to take your pulse).
Paciente: Perfecto. (Perfect).
Doctor: Su pulso está bien. ¿Es alérgico a algún medicamento? (Your pulse is fine. Are you allergic to any medications?)
Doctor: Entonces, le voy a prescribir unos analgésicos y Liquiprin por el momento. Tome 1 tableta de cada una durante 3 días. También necesita hacerse un análisis de sangre y descansar por unos días. (So, meanwhile I’m going to prescribe you some painkillers and Liquiprin. Take 1 tablet of each for 3 days. You also need to have a blood test and rest for some days).
Paciente: Perfecto, lo haré. (Perfect, will do).
Doctor: Vuelva con los resultados y le daré un diagnóstico y un tratamiento. (Come back with the results and I’ll give you a diagnosis and a treatment).
Paciente: Gracias doctor. Que tenga un buen día. (Thank you doctor. Have a nice day).
Now It’s Your Turn!
We hope these tips are useful to know how to communicate in medical terms with a patient or another person. Try a free class with native Spanish speakers at Homeschool Spanish Academy in order to practice your vocabulary while you enjoy the fun of this awesome language!
Want more Spanish work-related resources? Check these out!
- Differences between Latin American and Castilian Spanish
- 9 Medical Specialist Jobs in the U.S. That Pay More to Be Bilingual
- It’s An Emergency! Why American Doctors Need to Know Medical Spanish
- Top 10 Careers of the Future—in Spanish!
- How to Use Your Phone in a Spanish-Speaking Country
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