Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

What I’ve Learned as an ESL Physician


Growing up with non-English speaking parents, I know first-hand the challenges that these patients face. Being able to communicate is imperative for connecting and creating effective treatment plans. 

As I settled into my afternoon’s work, the medical assistant walked in flustered because the video interpreter wasn’t working again. I reviewed the chart for this patient and saw that the three-year-old boy’s family had decided to proceed with an elective surgery.


I was taken aback when I sensed the palpable annoyance upon entering the exam room. In between my patient’s mom’s broken English mixed with Swahili and the older brother frantically looking for the right words, I learned that this family never received a call to schedule the procedure. The mom was justifiably frustrated, as she might not be able to get time off from work.


I took a deep breath as mom vented, and as she spoke, thoughts about the barriers I faced as an immigrant years ago surfaced; in particular, 10-year-old me sitting in a sterile clinic with my parents, helping them navigate the U.S. healthcare system. These visits with my parents often felt paternalistic and rushed.  


Over the years, as the medical field has become more complex and clinicians are expected to be more efficient, there’s less emphasis placed on being a good listener. With non-English speaking families, the challenge as a physician is to develop the skills and patience to really listen. As I waited on the phone with the administrator to get them a surgery date, I was reminded of an adage from the Dalai Lama: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”  


Growing up with non-English speaking parents, and now as an ESL (English as a second language) physician, I have a unique perspective when working with these patients. It’s through true understanding of a patient’s fears and confusion that we start to create a treatment plan that works for the patient, family, and medical team. 







This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.