Risk Communication and the Medical Linguist

Whether through verbal or nonverbal language, we communicate with others continually and without much thought. Communicating a message clearly and concisely under normal circumstances is an art in and of itself. The style and goals of this form of art become more complex when communicating in emotional or risky situations. Translating this specialized form of communication into a foreign language is the job of a medical linguist.
Risk communication is a research-based approach to effectively communicating with diverse audiences in emotionally charged situations involving high stress, controversy and oftentimes, low trust. Regardless of the language spoken, communicating in these situations, whether in person, by phone or through print medium, the goals of a risk communicator remain the same.
In emotionally charged situations, people need to feel their concerns, regardless of their validity, are understood and accepted. The first goal of a risk communicator is to address the emotional response of the target audience and minimize any undue fears and concerns. Acknowledging concerns is an important step in diminishing them.
There is a fine line between minimizing fears and downplaying the risk. The next goal is to enhance trust in the source of information. People will judge the quality of the information they receive based on the perceived credibility and trustworthiness of its source. Being too matter-of-fact or making false promises can negatively affect your credibility and increase worry.
Lastly, a risk communicator needs to increase knowledge and create understanding. Once created, that understanding is used to empower your target audience to make informed decisions. Especially in any type of crisis situation, people feel they have some personal control over a situation in which they are able to participate in a response or decision making process.
Medical linguists are a specialized and talented group of professionals. Some work in facilities that translate for patients in person or over the phone, others work behind the scenes to create informed consent documents, health education materials, and patient information sheets like discharge materials or advance directives. Regardless of where, or in what medium they work, when it comes to healthcare communication, action, or inaction can be associated with risk. Through effective risk communication techniques, medical linguists are specially trained to facilitate patient access to health care services by clearly and concisely communicating this risk.
Sherry Dineen
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