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Language Barriers in Seeking Medical Care While Traveling Overseas

Read this before traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language!


Published on January 18th, 2024 in Travel Assistance, Travel Tips

The Impact of Language Barriers on Healthcare for Travelers

Part of the excitement of going on an international trip is exploring the unknown. You can sample food you’ve never tasted before, take in exotic sights, and even muddle your way through lopsided conversations with locals in their own language; well, at least try your best!

The uncertainty of travel is part of the fun, and not speaking the native language is a huge aspect of that uncertainty.
It may be inconvenient to not be able to direct your taxi driver, but when it comes to speaking about your healthcare needs with somebody who doesn’t speak English, it can be scary.

In this post we’ll break down some of the potential consequences of miscommunications regarding medical care due to language barriers, and more importantly, what you can do to better prepare for a trip where you might run into this problem.

Let’s dig in.

What are the potential consequences of language barriers while receiving healthcare abroad?

Let’s take a look at some of the potential issues associated with a language barrier while discussing medical needs.

Miscommunication and misdiagnosis

Language barriers can lead to miscommunication between the patient and healthcare providers. Important details about symptoms, medical history, or allergies may be misunderstood, increasing the risk of misdiagnosis or inappropriate treatment.

Medication errors

Difficulty in understanding instructions for medication use can lead to errors in dosage, timing, and frequency of administration, potentially leading to adverse drug reactions or ineffective treatment.

Increased anxiety and stress

Not being able to communicate effectively can increase anxiety and stress for the patient. This psychological discomfort might affect their overall experience and potentially even their recovery process.

Lack of informed consent

Effective communication is essential for informed consent, where patients are fully aware of and understand the risks and benefits of treatments. Language barriers can hinder this process, leading to ethical and legal complications.

Delayed treatment

Communication challenges can lead to delays in receiving appropriate care. Time-sensitive conditions may worsen during the period taken to overcome language obstacles.

Cultural misunderstandings

Beyond language, cultural differences can also impact the healthcare experience. Misunderstandings about cultural practices can affect the patient-provider relationship and the suitability of proposed treatments.

Financial loss

Language barriers can sometimes lead to longer hospital stays or additional tests, increasing healthcare costs. There might also be extra costs for translation services if required.

Reduced patient satisfaction and trust

When communication is challenging, patients may feel less satisfied with their care and less trusting of their healthcare providers, which can impact their willingness to seek care in the future.

How to avoid complications due to language barriers while receiving healthcare abroad

Travelers can take several proactive steps to minimize the negative consequences of language barriers while receiving healthcare abroad:

Enroll in a travel assistance membership

Enroll in a travel assistance membership that offers medical translation services. Some policies provide assistance in finding local healthcare providers who speak your language. Emergency Assistance Plus® (EA+®) has teams of professionals on standby 24/7/365 who are ready to help translate and arrange medical care for you while abroad.

Learn basic medical phrases

Before traveling, learn key medical phrases in the local language. This includes how to express pain, describe symptoms, and understand basic responses. If you have a known medical condition, plan in advance for potential healthcare needs. This might include identifying suitable healthcare facilities or arranging for specialist care if needed.

Use translation tools and technology

Carry a reliable translation app or a medical phrasebook. Some apps are designed specifically for medical situations and can facilitate communication with healthcare providers. In addition to translation apps, use apps that can store and easily retrieve your medical information. Some apps also allow you to speak into the phone and translate your words into the local language in real-time.

Related reading: 3 Steps to Get Your Smartphone Ready for International Travel

Carry important medical information

Prepare a document in both English and the local language detailing medical history, allergies, current medications, and any chronic conditions. This can be invaluable in an emergency.

Use professional interpreters

If possible, request a professional interpreter, especially for complex medical situations. Some hospitals and clinics offer interpreter services.

Healthcare provider research

Research healthcare facilities in your destination that cater to international patients or are known for having English-speaking staff.

Cultural awareness

Understanding local customs and healthcare practices can help in navigating the healthcare system more effectively and avoiding misunderstandings.

Consular assistance

In case of serious medical issues, contact your country’s embassy or consulate. They can often provide assistance in finding medical services and overcoming language barriers.

Local support networks

Identify expatriate groups or local support networks that might offer assistance or advice in navigating the healthcare system.

Next steps

We are hoping these tips on dealing with language barriers are helpful in preparing you to communicate about your medical needs while in a foreign country.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that preparation doesn’t end at translation.

EA+ travel assistance memberships are designed to empower travelers to go forth on their journeys with peace of mind knowing that should a medical emergency arise, they are protected by a team of highly skilled professionals ready to ensure they receive proper medical care and are provided the necessary transportation home.

Ready to learn more about travel assistance from EA+?

Check out our plan information on our website or give us a call at: 866-863-4460.

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