The Language Barrier At The Doctor’s Office

Whenever I make a doctor’s appointment for my mom, I try to have an interpreter there for her, especially since it’s offered for free as part of her insurance plan. The doctor’s office is one of the last places you want to have any miscommunication. But having an interpreter doesn’t necessarily mean the right messages are exchanged. There are times when I talk to my mom and forget there are words she doesn’t quite understand although she’s heard them a dozen times. Like the other day, I had to explain to her what “inflammation” and “pesticides” are. This is after I explained them to her the week prior. But the words that are so natural to me because I repeatedly hear them are very foreign to her, and I have to remind myself of how I would feel learning a hard Chinese word for the first or second time.

Recently she was at the doctor’s office and learned that her bones had gotten significantly worse in the last seven years, despite the fact that she’s been taking osteoporosis medication for that amount of time to stop additional bone loss. Upon hearing the news, she asked the doctor if there were any other non-medicine related measures she could take to prevent further bone loss. The doctor quickly told her “exercise, take your calcium supplements, and eat dairy, BUT the most important thing you can do is to continue taking this medicine.” My sweet mom who has to hear all the latest health reports from me and probably being influenced by my steps to heal naturally, asked her “why should I continue taking this if it didn’t do what it was supposed to do in the first place?”  The doctor said, “if you stop taking this, your bone will get even worse.”  At this point, the interpreter took it upon herself to interject: “just listen to the doctor, she knows more than you.” So my mom feeling intimidated and disheartened said “okay, but I heard a lot of women are having problems with Fosomax so please prescribe me something different.” The doctor then told my mom that it’s a safe medicine, and after my mom persisted that she didn’t want to take that medicine, the doctor said okay and wrote her a prescription for a “new” drug. My mom thanked the doctor and went on her way.

After buying the medicine at the pharmacy, she called me and gave me the name of the “new” drug. I quickly looked it up and saw that it’s simply another name for Fosomax. I couldn’t believe this doctor prescribed her a medicine the patient just told her she didn’t feel comfortable taking. Would this doctor have done something similar to a younger U.S.-born woman? My guess is no. The least the doctor could have done was to make the case for why taking this medicine was worth the long-term risks despite my mom’s continual bone loss. But to completely disregard a patient’s concerns and make them feel like they don’t have a voice is inexcusable.

Unfortunately this is not the first time something like this has happened at the doctor’s office with my mom or other older immigrant women I know. They are made to feel invisible. I try to go with my mom to most of her appointments when I can, but geographically that’s not always possible. It’s frustrating and I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like my mom to navigate the already complicated world of medicine with a language barrier. I’m trying to research a networking solution for this type of issue; I can’t imagine I’m the only daughter or son of an older immigrant mother faced with similar challenges.

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