travel nurse

Tips to Overcome Language Barriers in Travel Nursing

If you’re one of those people who’ve found the sweet spot between your passion for travel and profession as a nurse, you’re probably familiar with the exciting yet uncertain aspects of a frequently changing workplace. For travel nurses, every opportunity brings the promise of something new – new experiences, new people, and new challenges. Fortunately, if there’s one thing being a nurse has trained you for, then that would be to always stay prepared for challenges and tackle them head-on.

Given the ethnically diverse landscape of the US, it’s only a matter of time before you come across a patient with limited English proficiency (LEP). And for nurses, communication plays a key role in patient care. That’s why understanding the impact of language barriers and knowing how to navigate them becomes instrumental in facilitating the delivery of top-notch healthcare. And this is especially important for travel nurses as they’re more prone to interacting with a more diverse demographic on a regular basis.

How language barriers impact the delivery of healthcare

Communication plays a big part in ensuring efficient patient care as it helps bridge the gap between healthcare staff and patients. But in the instance of a language barrier, patient interaction becomes very difficult. With the increased risk of misunderstandings, both patients and nurses are at a disadvantage that keeps them from meeting quality patient care standards.

  • Risk of miscommunication: The threat of miscommunication runs high when neither party can understand one another. From increase in the length of hospital stays to increased risks of readmission to even delays in surgery, miscommunication can lead to grave consequences for the patient. It can also lead to increased healthcare costs while decreasing the quality of care.
  • Medical errors: Language barriers actively increase the risks of medical mismanagement. An NLM article shows an evidence-based report on how language barriers negatively impact patient care outcomes. Patients had increased risks of surgical site infections, central-line associated bloodstream infections, and pressure injuries.
  • Challenges in healthcare education: Patients with language barriers also find it difficult to communicate their concerns and make sufficiently informed decisions about their health. The NLM article also shows how LEP patients have 15-25% more chances of readmissions within a month if they’re suffering from chronic diseases. Their accessibility to healthcare also becomes limited as they’re hesitant to approach medical professionals. As a result, understanding instructions given during discharge or preventive screenings to control health risks becomes a challenge for them.

Read more from MyCareers: Nursing Specialties for the Travel Bug Nurse

Tips for travel nurses to overcome language barriers

Despite not sharing the same language, travel nurses can still communicate with patients and build trusting relationships. With a little effort and compassion, you can make sure your patients are heard and advocated for.

Pick up a few key phrases

While learning the language is not a possibility, you can still pick up a few keywords or phrases to make your job a little easier. Learning common phrases like ‘how are you feeling?’ or words like ‘pain’, ‘medicine’, water’, or ‘bathroom’ can help you interact with the patient during non-emergencies without having to run for an interpreter. Plus, this can also count as a thoughtful gesture and can help you in building a trusting relationship with patients.

Use body language

Your body language can convey a lot, especially when you’re not speaking the same tongue. Maintaining an approachable posture can make the patient feel comfortable around you. You can also actively use motions and gestures to convey something. By motioning with your hands, pointing with your fingers and even miming certain actions, you can get your message across to the patient. You can also communicate by showing them pictures of objects. To make sure you can successfully communicate in this manner, you also need to be perceptive to pick up gestures and non-verbal cues from the patient as well.

Use a translation app

Keeping a translation app handy can help with some basic communication like introducing yourself. While translator apps aren’t very reliable, they can still help in case an immediate need to communicate arises. You can use these apps to enquire about pain management or to help with daily tasks like maintaining hygiene. But you should be cautious of cultural contexts that these apps often don’t account for while translating.

Ask a multi-lingual coworker/ interpreter

Usually, multilingual nurses are the first to be called upon in cases of an emergency. But this also adds to their workload, and it can build up over time and affect their performance if this is a constant occurrence. That’s why seeking the services of an approved medical interpreter is a better idea. You can reach out to your nurse manager for a list of interpreters legally approved by the hospital or healthcare facility you’re working at.

Record keeping and patient understanding

Educating patients and advocating for them can become a real challenge when you’re not speaking the same tongue. But nonetheless, you should honor your duties as a nurse to educate patients as that’s the only way they can make important healthcare decisions for themselves. You must use a medical interpreter for any interaction that involves their diagnosis, treatment, medicine, or consent. Make sure you maintain precise records of the interactions as recommended by organizational policy and mandated by law.

Final thoughts

As a travel nurse, coming across diverse patient populations is unavoidable. So, preparing yourself for these situations well in advance can help you navigate them successfully. That doesn’t mean you have to learn five languages all at once. But you can do your research about the area you’ll be working in, including its demographics, to have an idea of what you can expect. For instance, if you land a travel nursing job in Florida, learning some common Spanish phrases can help as a significant part of the population in Florida is Hispanic.

When faced with language barriers, it is ideal that you have a certified medical interpreter for patient interactions. While you can get by with translation apps or coworkers or family members to translate for you for everyday needs, it shouldn’t be standard practice as they do not have the vocabulary to adequately describe a medical situation. That’s why it is best if you stuck to licensed interpreters for the most part. By using medical interpreters during crucial moments like admissions, patient teaching, and discharges, the risks posed by language barriers can be brought to a minimum.


  1. Strategies for overcoming language barriers in healthcare – PMC (
  2. MyCareers Job Search – Your Gateway to Career Excellence

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