Moving beyond the language barrier: the communication strategies used by international medical graduates in intercultural medical encounters

Patient Educ Couns. 2011 Jul;84(1):98-104. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2010.06.022. Epub 2010 Jul 16.


Objective: To understand the communication strategies international medical graduates use in medical interactions to overcome language and cultural barriers.

Methods: In-depth interviews were conducted with 12 international physicians completing their residency training in internal medicine in a large hospital in Midwestern Ohio. The interview explored (a) barriers participants encountered while communicating with their patients regarding language, affect, and culture, and (b) communication convergence strategies used to make the interaction meaningful.

Results: International physicians use multiple convergence strategies when interacting with their patients to account for the intercultural and intergroup differences, including repeating information, changing speaking styles, and using non-verbal communication.

Practice implications: Understanding barriers to communication faced by international physicians and recognizing accommodation strategies they employ in the interaction could help in training of future international doctors who come to the U.S. to practice medicine. Early intervention could reduce the time international physicians spend navigating through the system and trying to learn by experimenting with different strategies which will allow these physicians to devote more time to patient care. We recommend developing a training manual that is instructive of the socio-cultural practices of the region where international physician will start practicing medicine.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication Barriers
  • Communication*
  • Cultural Competency
  • Culture
  • Foreign Medical Graduates* / psychology
  • Foreign Medical Graduates* / standards
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine
  • Internship and Residency / statistics & numerical data
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Ohio
  • Organizational Culture
  • Physician-Patient Relations*