Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician's Handbook
Considering Health Care Perceptions
Understanding Older Patients
Obtaining the Medical History
Encouraging Wellness
Talking About Sensitive Subjects
Supporting Patients With Chronic Conditions
Breaking Bad News
» Working With Diverse Older Patients
Including Families and Caregivers
Talking With Patients About Cognitive Problems
Keeping the Door Open
Publications At-a-Glance
Services At-a-Glance
National Institute on Aging > Health > Publications > Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician’s Handbook
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Working With Diverse Older Patients

Appreciating the richness of cultural and ethnic backgrounds among older patients and providing interpretation for those with limited English can help to promote good health care.

“Cultural differences, not divides.”
Azeeza Houssani had been Dr. Smith’s patient for several years. She had always carefully followed his instructions. So, Dr. Smith was surprised when Mrs. Houssani was not willing to take her morning medication with food, as directed. He reminded her that these drugs were very hard on the stomach and could cause her pain if taken without food. But Mrs. Houssani just shook her head. Rather than getting frustrated, Dr. Smith gently pursued her reasons. Mrs. Houssani explained that it was Ramadan and she could not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Dr. Smith thought a bit and suggested that she find out if it’s okay to take medicine with food during Ramadan—there might be an exception for people in her situation who need to take medicine.

Understanding how different cultures view health care helps you to tailor questions and treatment plans to the patient’s needs. Although you cannot become an expert in the norms and traditions of every culture, being sensitive to general differences can strengthen your relationship with your patients.

Each culture has its own rules about body language and interpretations of hand gestures. Some cultures point with the entire hand, because pointing with a finger is extremely rude behavior. For some cultures, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful. Until you are sure about a patient’s background, you might opt for a conservative approach. And, if you aren’t certain about a patient’s preferences, ask.

The use of alternative medicines, herbal treatments, and folk remedies is common in many cultures. Be sure to ask your patient if he or she takes vitamins, herbal treatments, dietary supplements, or other alternative or complementary medicines. Also, in order to help build a trusting relationship, be respectful of native healers on whom your patient may also rely.

Older immigrants or non-native English speakers may need a medical interpreter. Almost 18 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the Census Bureau. Among older people, 2.3 million report not speaking English or not speaking it very well. Federal policies require clinicians and health care providers who receive Federal funds, such as Medicare payments, to make interpretive services available to people with limited English.

Many clinicians rely on patients’ family members or on the ad hoc services of bilingual staff members, but experts strongly discourage this practice and recommend the use of trained medical interpreters. Family members or office staff may be unable to interpret medical terminology, may inadvertently misinterpret information, or may find it difficult to relay bad news. Although a patient may choose to have a family member translate, the patient should be offered access to a professional interpreter.

When working with non-native English-speaking patients, be sure to ask which language they prefer to speak and whether or not they read and write English (and, if not, which language they do read). Whenever possible, offer patients appropriate translations of written material or refer them to bilingual resources. If translations are not available, ask the medical interpreter to translate medical documents.

For more information on working with patients with diverse cultural backgrounds, contact:

Management Sciences for Health
784 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4613
This organization publishes The Provider’s Guide to Quality & Culture. The Guide offers materials for health care providers who work with diverse populations, including information about common beliefs and practices.

National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Information Center

P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
800-222-2225 (toll-free)
The NIA Spanish-language website provides accurate, up-to-date information in Spanish on a variety of health issues of interest to seniors. The website offers free publications and links to other health-related Spanish-language resources.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)
The NIH has a wealth of patient education materials—a wide variety of which are available in Spanish. Visit the website for a complete list of Spanish-language resources.

National Library of Medicine

Office of Minority Health
P.O. Box 37337
Washington, DC 20013-7337
800-444-6472 (toll-free)
This Federal agency works to develop health policies and programs that help to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health.


Finding a Medical Interpreter
A number of States have associations and foundations that can help with locating, and in some cases provide funding for, medical interpreters. Some State Medicaid offices offer reimbursement for medical interpretation services. A web search can locate State organizations and local services. Or you can contact:

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care
5505 Connecticut Avenue, NW, #119
Washington, DC 20015-2601
518-459-3443 (fax)


In Summary
  • Keep in mind that cultural differences have an impact on how patients view doctors and medicine.
  • Ask about patients’ use of alternative and complementary medicines.
  • Use a professional medical interpreter rather than family members or untrained staff.
  • Provide written materials in the patient’s primary language.

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Page last updated Dec 31, 2008