Dr Lee

Effectively Navigating Cultural and Linguistic Gaps in Patient Communication

By Rebecca Lee, OD August 18, 2021

We all know that clear communication with patients is fundamental to our ability to connect with them and provide the best care. Cultural, linguistic, and generational differences can sometimes create barriers to that communication, limiting our understanding of each other and detracting from the patient experience. In my practice, we have found ways to navigate those gaps, so we can still communicate effectively despite our differences.

My family practice includes three locations spanning the highly diverse San Francisco Bay area, and we see a very eclectic patient base. Our patients speak a wide range of languages, including Cantonese, Chinese Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Spanish, and Russian, so everyone on my staff is multi-lingual. If we do encounter a language barrier, my staff knows to employ other methods to help patients understand—such as using plain language, avoiding medical jargon, utilizing visual methods such as diagrams and body language, and calling on an interpreter or translation service when needed.

There is also quite a bit of cultural diversity across our locations that impacts how we present our services. We opened our Oakland office in 1993 in the heart of Chinatown, so we see several Chinese immigrant patients there in addition to the many other demographics that call Oakland home. The common thread that ties everyone together is that there is a strong sense of community—everyone in the neighborhood knows our practice and our family; they send their kids to local schools; they do their grocery shopping and banking here. Our office is sometimes even a gathering place for people to visit with each other or meet up before heading to lunch. The culture is very homey and neighborly, which is reflected in our communication style.

Our second location, which we opened in the late nineties, is in Fremont. This practice has a very different patient base due to its proximity to Silicon Valley. Facebook is right across the bridge, Tesla is down the street, and Apple and Google are a short drive away. The majority of our patients are tech workers and engineers—they expect the newest technological efficiency in our office. To address this demographic, we incorporated more technology in this location, such as wide-field retinal screening and Optical coherence tomography (OCT).

As healthcare providers, we want to offer the best care possible to all patients. As I see it, that involves looking at care from each patient’s perspective—what is important to them, what kind of environment makes them comfortable, and how can we ensure we are speaking their language.

Listen to the YOU and Disney U podcast to hear more from Dr. Lee about communicating globally and spanning the gaps.

YOU and Disney U, brought to you by Premier Academy360™, is a series of 20-minute podcasts where VSP Global® Premier Program private practice doctors share how they have applied key principles from noted author Doug Lipp’s best-selling book, Disney U:  How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees

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