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Breaking the language barrier: The importance of bilingual veterinarians
Access to resources and educational programs can help veterinary professionals better communicate with Spanish-speaking clients
As veterinary professionals, it is our duty to provide the best possible care for all animals and maintain public health, regardless of a person’s background. However, for many Spanish-speaking pet owners, access to veterinary care can be hindered by multiple factors such as location, socioeconomic backgrounds, level of education, and language barriers. This can lead to misunderstandings, delayed or inadequate care, and mistrust in the healthcare system.
I grew up in Puerto Rico, also known as La Isla del Encanto, and got to witness firsthand how these factors had a detrimental impact on the standard of veterinary care that many animals needed but could not access. After moving to North Carolina in pursuit of my veterinary degree, I began volunteering with an organization called Determined for Everyone to Gain Access to Veterinary Care (DEGA). It was here that I realized similar circumstances are hampering patient care in the United States and it largely pertains to the existing language barriers. DEGA offers free veterinary services to underserved communities, most of which only speak Spanish.
When volunteering with them, I am often the only Spanish speaking interpreter. Although I can bridge this gap, I often reflect about all the times they must encounter similar situations but there is nobody present that is able to help. I remember watching young children who were bilingual serve as translators and trying to communicate difficult medical terminology to their parents with limited proficiency in English. This is a serious issue that could jeopardize the patient’s care. I also remember the absolute joy in many people’s demeanor when they realized someone on the team spoke their language. People should feel comfortable when speaking with healthcare professionals and bridging this language barrier will help make this a reality.
The 2022 US Census showed that 18.9% (62.9 million people) of the total United States population identifies as being Hispanic or Latinx.1 Of these, approximately 38.3 million speak Spanish. To my knowledge, there is limited to no existing data that investigates determining the proportion of veterinary professionals that possess the necessary skills to effectively communicate with this population.2 These existing language barriers between veterinary professionals and clients have a monumental impact on patient standard and quality of care, impair efficient communication, and limit access to veterinary services in certain populations. These limitations can discourage individuals from seeking care in the future, further contributing to limiting accessible veterinary care.
The lack of bilingual veterinarians in the country also exacerbates this problem, as it limits the number of providers who can effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking pet owners. This can lead to reduced access to care in areas with high Hispanic populations and may result in poor health outcomes for animals. In a 2016 study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, it was determined that 38% of the Latinx population in the United States owned dogs or cats. In the same study, 383 practices throughout the US were evaluated to assess their preparedness to efficiently provide care for Spanish speaking populations. 89% of these practices possess Spanish-speaking populations but only 8% of these same practices had the necessary resources or skills to efficiently communicate with these clients.2
So, what can be done to address this ongoing issue? One solution is to increase the number of bilingual and Spanish-speaking veterinarians. This would help to ensure that all pet owners, regardless of their language, have access to high-quality veterinary care for their animals. Making translation services accessible and creating educational materials in Spanish can also help to bridge the language barrier and improve communication between veterinarians and Spanish-speaking pet owners. Another solution would be to increase compensation for these individuals who are actively contributing to combat this phenomenon.
These solutions prompt the question, “How are we, as a society and professionals, going to make this happen?” I think the potential to make this a reality relies on each one of us as individuals. It is easy to forget how powerful we are and the simplicity of using our voices can make a difference.
Asking curriculum committees from veterinary programs throughout the country to incorporate Spanish classes into their programs and would be helping to more adequately prepare future generations of veterinarians to address this existing problem. Additional resources that schools can provide include workshop opportunities that can be claimed as academic credit or by prompting participation in professional certification programs such as the Spanish Certificate Program that is funded by the USDA. By offering these opportunities to veterinary students, they would be actively contributing to meeting the much-needed demand of bilingual education and veterinarians. Another solution is to use existing resources that are already available.
One such example can be the educational materials the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMC) prepared in different languages, offering information about common diseases. By letting others know that these resources exist, they will be more likely to reach for them and facilitate them to the public.
Finally, it is crucial to appropriately compensate the individuals who possess these skills or are actively working on developing them. Being bilingual ensures that more animals receive the standard of care that they are entitled to, and thus those who can readily provide this much needed skill should be able to incorporate this skill as part of their salary negotiations. This would not only benefit those who already possess this skill but will also motivate others to pursue more knowledge, helping fulfill the need for bilingual professionals while ensuring more animals receive the best possible care.
Language barriers can have a significant impact on the ability of Spanish-speaking pet owners to access veterinary care for their animals. It is also important to note that this language barrier is not only limited to Spanish speaking pet owners. We need a diverse veterinary population that has easy access to the necessary tools to have the ability to properly address this phenomenon. By incorporating bilingual classes to veterinary curriculums, providing workshops, professional certifications, and recognizing that bilingual individuals deserve proper compensation for their skills, we can increase the number of bilingual and Spanish-speaking veterinarians. This in turn would make it easier to provide translation services and educational materials in various languages, ensuring that all pet owners have access to high-quality veterinary care for their animals.
- Quick facts: United States. United States Census Bureau. 2022. Accessed January 28, 2023. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI725221
- Landau, R., Beck, A., Glickman, L., Olynk, N., Moore, G. Preparedness of small animal veterinary practices to communicate with Spanish-speaking pet owners with limited proficiency in English. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. March 15, 2016. Accessed January 28, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26953924/