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Overcoming a language barrier: 5 ways to put your dental patients at ease

July 19, 2022
Most dentists will treat patients from different backgrounds. Here are ways to put them at ease and help ensure they get the care they need.

Dentists often treat patients from different linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Modern treatment plans emphasize a shared decision-making process requiring communication between the patient and the dentist; the dentist’s ability to communicate with the patient is critical to building a strong dentist-patient relationship.

Having patients who speak different languages can be intimidating for a dentist, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Preparing translated paperwork, learning about cultural differences, and arranging for interpreters or interpretation solutions goes a long way in communicating with patients. Through my experience as a dentist in Phoenix, Arizona, I have treated many Spanish-speaking patients, and these tips helped me prepare for when that language barrier exists.

Use an interpreter

Dentists do not need to hire a professional interpreter for their office. However, it’s a good idea, if possible, to have staff members who speak the language that is prominent around the clinic. For me this is Spanish since we work in Phoenix.

Legally, an interpreter should be available in person, by phone, or through a video service. Many services are available for doctors and dentists to use for interpretation of many languages.

Whenever a dentist works with an interpreter, they need to remember to speak directly to the patient and their family, not the interpreter. For example, don’t ask the interpreter if they can ask the patient a question. Instead, look at the patient and speak just as you would any patient. Speaking this way keeps the discussion patient-focused, helps you connect with the patient, and builds rapport. When speaking with the interpreter always remember to speak slowly and clearly to ensure the information is being relayed to the patient correctly.

Dentists need to keep the patient engaged and make them feel that they’re your main priority. If you’re looking at the interpreter, the patient will feel disengaged.

Use written materials

Written documents can go a long way toward helping patients understand procedures and home care. Dental offices can provide translated documents for patients after all procedures. There are variety of medical translation services that have documents ready for download. As well, if a staff member is a native speaker of the language, they can translate the documents and have them typed out and ready for patients before they leave.

Related reading: How to bridge language barriers with your patients

Learn the basics

Taking the time to learn a few short phrases also goes a long way in helping patients feel at ease. Learn phrases like hello, nice to meet you, thank you, and goodbye. Speaking even a few short phrases, shows you care and that you took the time to learn at least a little about their language. You can use online programs and applications to learn basic phrases and greetings, as well as also want to learn a few terminologies in their field. This helps get the medical information across in an understandable way that will be beneficial to the patient.

Use gestures

Communication doesn’t just consist of speaking to patients. Using gestures can help demonstrate important information the dentist is trying to convey. Facial expressions, head nodding, hand gestures, touch, and demonstration gestures are all ways dentists can communicate with patients. Dentists need to be aware of culturally inappropriate hand gestures or body language before the patient arrives so they don’t inadvertently offend them. Dental staff can do this by doing a simple internet search or speaking with a person from that part of the world.

Check for understanding

Don’t assume that the patient or family member fully understood the information you conveyed. To ensure that you’re on the same page as the patient, use the teach-back method: Have the patient and family member explain the information they just received to the best of their abilities. This method allows the dentist to know they understood home-care information and any procedures they are about to receive.