About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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When the doctor’s English is not good

When I met with Dr. Javed  Akram earlier this week, I saved what I thought was the hardest question for last. I wanted to know how Akram felt about hospitalists who don’t speak English very well.

Dr. Javed Akram

Akram is the medical director of the new hospitalist group at Mary Washington Hospital. In talking with him and with community doctors this week for the article, here, in today’s paper, I kept hearing about the problem of language. No community doctor would go on the record about it, but the complaint was that either they or their patients often have a hard time understanding what the hospitalists are saying.

Many of the hospitalists in both the old and new groups do come from foreign countries. Go to the Mary Washington Healthcare’s online physician directory, here, select adult hospitalist under “Specialty,” and you’ll find a rainbow of nations and languages represented.

Some of the languages spoken by the hospitalists include Hausa, Farsi, Amharic, Punjabi, Kazakh, Urdu, Pashto and Grebo.  Presumably, all of them also speak English, but I wonder if it was the language they were raised with, the one spoken in their homes and schools as they were growing up.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that these doctors are here. I suspect, like many immigrants, that they were among the best and brightest in their homelands. They were attracted by the opportunities that this nation offers and had the courage to relocate. We benefit by having them here.

But good language skills in a doctor are critical. Patients and their families want to understand, need to understand, what is happening to them while they are in hospital and what they should do when they go home.  

Akram, who received his early training in Pakistan and is easily understood, was gracious when I asked about the issue. He and his company, HMG, acknowledge the problem, and he says  they are trying to do something about it.

“We screen all the physicians that we hire,” he said. “If we feel that somebody may have a thick accent or be hard to understand, we have a language training program in our company.”

The language training program is at the company’s headquarters in Ohio, he said.

“If we feel we have a very good physician that has great references and that we need to hire this physician, they go through the program,” he said.

He added, “We believe keeping the patient informed is the key.”


  • Kaye

    It does matter. You can’t follow medical advice if you don’t understand what you’re being told. I agree with you that these docs are probably the best and the brightest to be able to come here and practice in a second language. We’re lucky to have them, but it is really important for them to become fluent in English.

  • kathryn

    They ARE fluent in english. That is not the problem. The problem is that their accent is so heavy from their native language it’s difficult to understand them. With that said none of them have ever been unwilling to repeat what they were saying if I did not understand. (im a nurse) They are grateful to be here in this country practicing medicine, so it is usually the american doctors that act out innapropriately!

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