Breaking Down Language Barriers: The Essential Role of Bilingual Nurses

The United States population speaks many languages. Learn about the crucial role that bilingual nurses play in breaking down language barriers in healthcare.
view of Our Lady of Victory Chapel and Coeur de Catherine from across the Dew Drop pond

A diverse population benefits from bilingual healthcare, especially bilingual nurses. Fluent in at least two languages, bilingual nurses foster healthcare communication across cultural divides.

The need for bilingual and multilingual healthcare professionals is skyrocketing. A record 67.3 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data, a number that more than doubled since 1990 and nearly tripled since 1980. As this upward trend illustrates, healthcare needs bilingual nurses now more than ever.

Learn some of the ways that bilingual nurses are breaking down language barriers and improving patient outcomes today.

Changing U.S. Demographics and Language Use

Cultural and linguistic diversity in the U.S. is rising. In the past four decades, the percentage of U.S. residents who speak languages other than English has increased exponentially.

For example, the two most common languages in the U.S. are English and Spanish. An estimated 41 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, according to the 2018 census. That’s 41 million people for whom English is a second language (or a third or fourth language).

Language use varies by region. For instance, the most frequently spoken languages in St. Paul, Minnesota, are English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. Not all of the languages in St. Paul are spoken: St. Paul residents also communicate through American Sign Language (ASL), a visual natural language often used by deaf communities in the U.S. 

Why Bilingual Healthcare Matters

Increasing language diversity across the U.S. has huge ramifications for the healthcare system. In striking contrast to the number of U.S. residents who speak Spanish, for example, less than 6% of doctors identify as Spanish speakers, according to U.S. News & World Report. This gap highlights the need for bilingual nurses and healthcare interpreters to communicate health information clearly and effectively.

Healthcare recruiters seek to hire bilingual healthcare professionals, including nurses, for the following reasons.

Providing Higher-Quality Care

Communication fluency in healthcare settings affects quality of care. When patient-provider relationships improve, so do patient health outcomes. Here are just a few ways that communicating in a patient’s first or native language benefits healthcare outcomes:

  • Feeling more comfortable with one’s healthcare provider
  • Asking questions in one’s native language
  • Experiencing a reduction in fears and anxieties stemming from navigating healthcare settings
  • Receiving critical medical explanations in one’s native language
  • Advocating for one’s own needs, using the full expression of one’s native language

Demonstrating Respect and Cultural Competency

Cultural competency is an ability to respect, understand, and interact well with people from backgrounds and belief systems different from one’s own. All healthcare professionals need to demonstrate cultural competency by working hard to communicate effectively with all patients while honoring their cultural values.

In today’s healthcare landscape, the presence of bilingual nurses and other bilingual medical professionals signals respect. When a healthcare facility prioritizes the need for care providers to communicate in the same language as their patients, those patients feel valued. For example, hiring full-time staff members who speak both English and Chinese in a largely Chinese American suburb communicates that healthcare services in the area understand their community’s specific needs. 

Adhering to the Law

By law, healthcare providers must hire interpreters to facilitate communication between workers and non-English speakers — unless the professionals are fluent in a patient’s native language. 

Relying Less on Translation Services

In addition to delivering quality care, a practical benefit of bilingual and multilingual healthcare workers is that they reduce the need for external translation and interpretation services. In this way, hiring bilingual workers reduces overall healthcare costs.

The Importance of Bilingual Nurses

Nurses are in constant communication with their patients. They collect patient information upon admission. They learn about a patient’s history, their concerns, and their values. Often, nurses need to get consent from their patients to move forward with a medical treatment, which requires that the nurse and patient share a common understanding through a shared language. Finally, nurses explain crucial information to patients at discharge:

  • How much medicine to take and when 
  • What side effects to expect 
  • How to promote the healing process after an operation
  • What signs to look for before deciding to call emergency services 

Language barriers can disrupt any part of this communication process. Encouraging bilingual communication — whether it’s in Spanish, Tagalog, ASL, or any other language — can put patients at ease and facilitate effective communication in healthcare.

Build Cross-Cultural Connection as a Skilled Nurse

Speaking more than one language opens doors for nurses and healthcare professionals. Fundamentally, all nurses build relationships with patients and families. Bilingual nurses can help improve those relationships by breaking down cultural barriers in healthcare, thereby improving patient care.

Learn more about opportunities for improving cross-cultural care by exploring St. Catherine University’s accredited nursing degree program. St. Kate’s prepares students for the profession with comprehensive nursing instruction, including technical skills and the opportunity to work alongside compassionate professionals in the field. When pursuing their accredited nursing degree, students gain the technical skills and experience necessary to succeed in the medical field.

CNN, “US Census Fast Facts” 

Healthcare, “Developing Bilingualism in Nursing Students: Learning Foreign Languages Beyond the Nursing Curriculum” 

Minority Nurse, “The Growing Need for Bilingual Nurses”, “Bilingual Nurses Improve Patient Safety”

Patient Education Counseling, “Multilingual Healthcare Communication: Stumbling Blocks, Solutions, Recommendations”

Telelanguage, “Multilingual Patient Care: Language Solutions in Health Care”

St. Paul Government, LEP Languages 

U.S. News & World Report, “Why We Need More Spanish-Speaking Doctors”