“Come on in,” says the doctor. You shuffle into the fluorescently lit room past a few pairs of prying eyes and work stations overflowing with papers. After the initial prodding that typically accompanies these types of visits, you begin to describe the pain you’ve been experiencing lately. The doctor assures you that everything will be just fine. Although it doesn’t ease all your tension, you feel relieved to hear that you just need a shot to help your body clear the infection it has been fighting. This means you are one step closer to feeling well and returning to work; and work has been hard to come by lately.
Upon entering the injection room, you feel an immediate sense of trepidation at the group of young strangers in white coats whispering in the corner. Alarmed, you listen more closely, only to realize that they are speaking a different language entirely. One of them approaches and recites in broken phrase “Hello, welcome. Which arm do you prefer?,” while the others continue to struggle filling the syringe. Panic rising, you brace yourself, not fully confident that this “medicine” they’re loading is even going to help you. The precautionary tales you’ve heard around town about strange reactions to these type of injections race through your head. When you attempt to ask the white coat clad young man about the mysterious yellow liquid in the all too large syringe, all he can mutter is “Breathe deep. It isn’t going to hurt much.”
Imagine this type of exchange occurring on a daily basis and in a framework that is, not only allowed, but often praised. After returning from a medical trip to Guatemala, I couldn’t help but replay the interactions I had through the eyes of my patients; and I felt a strong sense of uneasiness about what I envisioned.
We were able to accomplish good on this trip. Medical students can help doctors and nurses see more patients each day and extend the scope of desperately needed care in many developing countries. However, I can’t help but wonder if these types of trips should entail a heightened moral responsibility to ensuring the highest quality of care to all patients.
As health care providers, it is our responsibility to provide comfort and act as a source of information for all the patients we see. Language barriers can make this extremely difficult, especially when compounded by the shaky inexperienced hands of young medical students. It is vitally important for all young health professionals to properly educate themselves in the language and necessary skills before endeavoring to care for people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Before embarking on any mission in the future, I hope to more fully prepare myself to be a confident and culturally competent medical provider.
About the Author
Sarah Olofsson is currently in her second year of medical school at Saint Louis University. Sarah majored in Spanish as an undergraduate, but a recent trip to Antigua, Guatemala — that inspired this post — was the first time she used Spanish in a medical setting. As a future physician, Sarah hopes to be actively involved in public policy efforts aimed at eliminating health disparities.