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The Local Medical Lingo

Frank Gillingham, MD

Although there may be physicians who speak the expatriate's native tongue in many parts of the world, it is rarer to find this facility with nurses, office staff, ambulance drivers, medical technicians, and others. It is therefore critical that expatriates are able to communicate key medical needs in the local lingo.

To start, the expatriate should learn (or have available) translations of key medical phrases such as "I want to see the doctor" and "I need something for pain." Because these are the types of phrases the expatriate may need to communicate in the middle of a night in the hospital, the translations should be printed and kept handy.

In addition, the expatriate should learn or have available translations of relevant medical idioms such as hay fever (nasite in Portuguese) or chicken pox (windpocken in German). The expatriate should also be familiar with the medical term, not simply the lay version, of their key medical conditions. Around the world medical terms are more commonly recognized than lay terms. An physician in Spain summarizes the problem below:

"Any Spanish English-speaking physician will understand a patient has had hemorrhoids, but will not be familiar with 'piles'."—Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Madrid, Spain.