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Facilitating Communication Between Patients and Their Foreign-Born Doctors

Dec 28, 2016 10:30AM ● By MED Magazine
Although international medical graduates must be competent in English in order to be licensed to care for patients, a heavy accent can still pose a problem, especially in regions with limited diversity where patients may be unused to hearing foreign speakers. Speech Language Pathologist and South Dakota native Treva Graves remembers well her own frustration as she struggled to understand her doctors when she adopted a baby with health problems in California.

“It was an area with a lot of diversity and our daughter’s pediatrician was from Ethiopia, her neurologist was from Lebanon, and her cardiologist was from Syria,” says Graves. “It was so hard to build a relationship and have that trust because we just couldn’t understand them.”

Today, eleven years later, Graves has begun offering foreign accent reduction training to help international medical graduates who are new to the area communicate more effectively with their Midwestern patients.

“The three things we look at are intonation, pronunciation, and grammatical differences,” explains Graves who says foreign-born speakers may stress the wrong syllables, mispronounce or over-pronounce certain letters (such as the American “t”), or fail to use contractions. In the worst cases, these kinds of differences can lead to medical errors. But even when they don’t, communication differences may still widen the gulf between provider and patient.

“If you have patients who aren’t satisfied because they can’t understand their physician, that can impact your bottom line,” says Graves, who underwent a specialized program to become a preferred trainer in Foreign Accent Reduction. “Communication in a medical setting is critical for establishing rapport, obtaining medical releases, and just communicating about treatment and medication.”

Graves offers a 3-month program of weekly sessions and says a 40 to 60 percent accent reduction is possible.