Health & Care

English is an official language and is widely spoken in india


  • In recent years, several medical tourism hubs have emerged in different parts of the
  • Engaging interpreters to tackle the language problem in international medical travel

(IIP) - In recent years, several medical tourism hubs have emerged in different parts of the
world. This is because familiarity with countries which share similar languages, social customs,
and cultural mores makes it easier for foreign patients to access treatment in another country.1
Some of these countries have become leading providers in specific health services such as
cardiac, cosmetic, or dental surgery. The Asian region constitutes an important medical tourism

The relevance of communication in health care

The vital role of good communication in health care is commonly acknowledged – and so is its complexity and difficulty. Gathering a comprehensive medical history is by no means a simple task for a doctor. It is equally demanding for the patient to convey her ailments and medical history and to understand the suggested treatment. Medical jargon is difficult to understand, and a doctor's status and busy schedule does not encourage people to ask for further explanations. The potential for misunderstanding increases considerably if doctors and patients do not speak the same language.

In the context of international medical travel, it is the norm, rather than the exception, for doctor and patient to speak different languages. Contrary to common perception, many medical tourists don’t speak English. Moreover, many of them come from poor countries and have only a limited education. Communicating with a doctor is even more challenging for these patients. However, the language barrier does not prevent these patients from travelling; coming from countries with very limited health care facilities, they have little alternative if they want to receive treatment.

Engaging interpreters to tackle the language problem in international medical travel

Health care providers catering for foreign patients and medical travel intermediaries recognized the relevance of language at an early stage. They therefore offer websites in different languages and, where applicable, providers highlight their staff’s proficiency in English. India, for example, greatly prides itself on the fact that health professionals speak English. Most importantly, hospitals offer a complimentary interpreting service for non-English speaking patients. For example, a 350-bed hospital in Delhi NCR employs around 20 interpreters mostly from Arabic, but also from Russian, French and other languages. Hospitals usually rely on a mix of regularly employed and freelance interpreters. However, patients may also bring with them a relative or friend or a translator provided by a medical travel agency, or hire an interpreter.
The findings of an ongoing ethnographic research project looking at three key players in Delhi NCR’s medical travel industry indicate that health providers tend to consider that they have addressed the language challenge by ensuring that their staff are proficient in English, and by offering complimentary translation services. Indeed, the primary data we have collected so far shows that foreign patients really appreciate these services. The data also shows that hospital interpreters’ tasks go far beyond merely translating between languages.


Contrary to the prevailing understanding, many foreign patients in Delhi NCR are not wealthy. The bulk of international patients coming to Delhi leave their home country because this kind of treatment is non-existent there. They travel to India out of necessity. Their journey for affordable health care is not the savvy choice of a well-informed, rational consumer, as is often assumed. Rather, it is an act of seizing the one chance they have got. Accordingly, these patients reach for a cure with desperate hope and for extra-medical care with modest expectations. Communication challenges are unlikely to keep these patients away, since they have few, if any, other options. However, the lack of alternatives does not release providers from their responsibility to facilitate optimal health care and not simply a medical cure. This entails that they adequately address the challenge of nuanced and clear communication across cultural and language boundaries.
To do so, there is a need to acknowledge the full complexity of trans-cultural doctor-patient communication needs. Interpreters with a high level of language proficiency, in-depth knowledge of the source culture and a medical background are a major part of achieving this goal.

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